In mid-1990, Amy Edmondson, a doctoral student, had a hypothesis — the good and effective teams of doctors and nurses make fewer medication-related mistakes.
Her research was a part of a bigger project that aimed to reduce medicine-related errors in hospitals.
To prove her point, she created a diagnostic survey. Over the next six months, she and many other medical researchers interviewed several hospital departments and logged their medical errors.
After six months, when she ran her analysis, she found that her hypothesis was torn to shreds. The data showed that better teams made more errors.
Frustrated and second-guessing herself, she hired another researcher to dig in deeper.
Do you know what they found?
They found that better teams were not making more errors, they were just more open and unafraid to share their errors.
While ineffective teams were hiding their errors, better teams felt safe to share their errors. By sharing and learning from their errors, they were becoming even more effective.
Edmondson spent the next couple of decades researching the concept of psychological safety where organizations should create safe zones where employees could speak up without fear.
The same is true for people.
The people who do well, whether it is in sports, work, business, profession, entrepreneurship, or life itself, are the people who acknowledge their mistakes, learn from them and become better as a consequence.
Successful people are not afraid of making mistakes. They realize mistakes are part of the learning process.
Thomas Watson built IBM into a behemoth. Once, a subordinate of Watson had made a huge mistake. The mistake cost IBM $600,000. Watson was asked by the board if he would fire this person. And Watson famously replied: “Fire him? I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want anyone else to hire his experience?”
Life’s greatest lessons are usually learned from the worst mistakes.
I had a similar experience with an employee. Once during an interview, a candidate told me that when he just started his career he transferred thousands of dollars into various accounts thinking he was practicing in a test environment. Some of the money was never found. Since then he is very careful while working in the production environment.
The panel was horrified at his carelessness. Later, when we reflected on it, we realized two things. One, he owed his mistake and learned from it. Two, he was courageous enough to bring out in an interview, which meant he was honest, truthful, and not afraid of making mistakes. I hired him. He was one of my best employees.
Our mistakes make us the person we become. Hide your mistakes or be afraid of the consequences, you will never become the person you can.
Keeping a log of mistakes.
Ray Dalio, a hedge fund manager, philanthropist, and author, created a mistake log at Bridgewater Associates. Every employee is required to log their mistakes so that other people can learn from them.
Making a mistake is not a fireable offense at Bridgewater Associates. But failing to log your mistakes is.
Creating a culture where everyone shares their mistakes accelerates the learning of the entire team. It’s one of the reasons why Bridgewater Associates is the biggest hedge fund in the world today.
Why are we reluctant to admit our mistakes?
Mistakes often put us in a disadvantageous position. They might lead us to physical or psychological danger. Many mistakes hurt our ego. How could I be so stupid to do this?
We are afraid of the consequences. If I say I did it, they might fire me. Or I will never win the promotion.
Throughout human history, our errors have often been treated as dangerous for a variety of reasons. They expose society to real danger. Many societies punish those who do not conform to the prevailing doctrine. Some communities and families are the same. From an early age, people learn to hide their mistakes.
Humans have a history of handling mistakes and failure unpleasantly. Since each of us carries unpleasant memories of whole human history with us, it can be challenging to overcome the fear of sharing mistakes.
If we can embrace the reality of mistakes, we can free ourselves to be more creative in our lives and dig up some interesting insights.
How to get over our mistakes?
The biggest problem with overcoming mistakes is the feeling of self-loathing.
Think back to the last mistake you made at work, even if it was a minor one, like showing up late at an important meeting or messing up a presentation or making a wrong assessment based on incomplete facts.
Once we realize our mistake, the disgust and contempt we feel break us into pieces. We can’t seem to overcome the fact how we could ever do that.
The thing to remember in situations like these is — we are human after all. We can’t act all the time perfectly. We are bound to make mistakes. Admit you made a mistake. Think about what lesson it had for you. Make a note of that and then stop dwelling on it.
Mistakes are not the same thing as failure. A failure results from doing a wrong action, whereas a mistake usually is just a wrong action. So, when you make a mistake, you can learn from it and fix it.
What to do when you make a mistake.
“When you make a mistake, there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, and don’t repeat it.” — Paul Bear Bryant.
Don’t hide it, ever.
Don’t be scared of the consequences. If you hide your mistake, you will miss learning from them and make bigger mistakes while covering them.
If you own your mistake, chances are your superiors will regard you highly for your truthfulness and courage.
Learn from it.
When we refuse to learn from our mistakes, we inflict unnecessary stress on ourselves and others. Mistakes are the best teachers in the world.
If you want to make the learning process faster, go ahead and make mistakes. Then make sure to learn from them.
The greatest mistake you can ever make is not to make mistakes.
- Point us to something we did not know.
- Reveal a nuance we missed.
- Deepen our knowledge.
- Tell us something about our skill levels.
- Help us see what matters and what does not.
- Inform us more about our values.
- Teach us more about others.
- Let us recognize changing circumstances.
- Show us when someone else has changed.
- Keep us connected to what works and what doesn’t work.
- Remind us of our humanity.
- Spur us to want to better work which helps us all.
- Promote compassion for ourselves and others.
- Teach us to value forgiveness.
- Help us to pace ourselves better.
- Invite us to better choices.
- Can teach us how to experiment.
- Can reveal new insight.
- Can suggest new options we had not considered.
- Can serve as a warning.
- Show us hidden fault lines in our lives, which can lead us to more productive arrangements.
- Point out structural problems in our lives.
- Prompt us to learn more about ourselves.
- Remind us how we are like others.
- Make us more humble.
- Help us rectify injustices in our lives.
- Show us where to create more balance in our lives.
- Tell us when the time to move on has occurred.
- Reveal where our passion is and where it is not.
- Expose our true feelings.
- Bring out problems in a relationship.
- Can be a red flag for our misjudgments.
- Point us in a more creative direction.
- Show us when we are not listening.
- Wake us up to our authentic selves.
- Can create distance with someone else.
- Slow us down when we need to.
- Can hasten change.
- Reveal our blind spots.
- Make invisible visible.
Don’t repeat it.
The last thing you need to do is make sure you don’t make the same mistake again. If you repeat the same mistake, it is no longer a mistake; it is a choice.
We will continue to make mistakes. At work, in life, with parenting, with relationships—no need to be afraid of them.
When you realize your mistake, figure out what lesson it had for you. Was it the lack of knowledge, skills, or something else? What led you to make that mistake? What were the emotions behind them?
Learning from mistakes is painful, but there is no other way.
If you are not making mistakes, that means you are not doing enough.
Take chances, make mistakes. This is how you grow.