Alina Tugend, author of "Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong," teaches us why to err is human...and that's OK.
Your company’s “culture” sucks. No one takes ownership (unless the project is an unheralded success). Your co-workers eye each other suspiciously in the halls.
It’s possible—though not likely—that all of your colleagues are evil people. I’d hedge bets on a different culprit: failure, or rather the way your company views it. Fail-spert Alina Tugend argues that businesses that don’t conduct double-loop analyses of their failures will inevitably fail…harder.
Tugend herself is no stranger to failure. It was a particularly public fail that got her thinking about the topic in the first place. In a column for The New York Times, she mistakenly wrote that Daylight Savings Time was starting, when it was actually ending. (The world ends!) The paper ran a correction.
“I made a much bigger deal of it than my editors did,” she recalls. “I got scared. What if I make an error in my next column…and the one after that? I tried to put it in perspective. It was minor. I will do a better job of checking facts, but these things happen occasionally.”
Still, it bothered her. And that she was bothered bothered her. She began to question why her first reaction was to disown or hide the mistake, why people think that mistake = stupid or foolish, why “to err is human”—unless the error is our own.
These questions led to quite the obsession for Tugend, who wrote a column about the “inherent tension between what we’re told—that we must make mistakes in order to learn, how all great leaders have embraced them—and the reality that we often get punished for making mistakes and therefore try to avoid them—or cover them up—as much as possible.”
She began to research failure research—in abundance in the U.S. and Canada, but rare in Europe. (As for Asia, where childhood learning focuses more on process than results, failure tends to be more accepted. A survey shows that effort is a favorite word among the Japanese.)
Tugend’s own effort ultimately resulted in a research-heavy book, Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, available this month. In it, she argues that the fear of failure “creates workplaces where taking chances and being creative while risking failure is subsumed by an ethos of mistake-prevention at the cost of daring and innovation. Or conversely, workplaces where superstars are never challenged; rather they are rewarded for making really bad decisions.”
Research on the fear of failure is fascinating. Children praised as “really smart” opt for easier puzzles to keep looking smart, while those praised as “hard working” try more difficult problems. And for children who believe that hard work doesn’t improve intelligence, mistakes mean they’re stupid. This adulation of talent over effort in the adult world has led to some of the worst failures of modern times: Enron, the recent global financial crisis, lost lives in plane crashes and at hospitals. (Interested? Read the book.)
But none of this really addresses the I-have-no-power-to-change-anything-at-my-XYZ Corp. complaint (which may be much less true than you think). Tugend offers these tips to those caught up in a “you fail, you’re fired” corporate environment.
1. WHAT’S YOUR MESSAGE? If you tell people that mistakes are OK, but then punish or humiliate them in front of colleagues, you’re doing it wrong. Be honest with yourself and make sure your messages and actions reflect the importance of mistakes and their roles in business.
2. DOUBLE LOOP LEARNING. After a mistake, analyze the process that led to it, and the ultimate goal itself. A CEO who nixes a long, progress-snarling checklist certainly makes it easier to get things done, but is probably expunging some pretty important steps. Analyze every step or process, find out why it was created and if it’s affective or even still needed.
3. THE GROWTH MINDSET. A Southern Methodist University study found that managers with fixed mindsets cling to initial impressions, good or bad. They didn’t notice increasing mistakes in stellar employees or decreasing mistakes in workers they deemed as poor performers. Supervisors are also much less likely to support education and coaching for employees if they think that ability is a fixed commodity.
4. INFLEXIBLE HIERARCHY. Create a forum for employees to question their superiors. According to research by Robert Helmreich at the University of Texas, a key reason for airplane crashes in the 1970s and 1980s wasn’t bad equipment, it was the inability of flight crews to address dangerous conditions with the pilot. In one case, a voice recorder has the captain yelling, “Shut up and look out the window—if I wanted help, I’d ask for it” mere minutes before the crash.
5. THE PERFECT COMPANY. It doesn’t exist. If you’re stuck in a no-fail workplace, depersonalize criticism. Accept valid critiques and dismiss the rest. Sometimes, it’s hard to digest criticism right away. Mull it over for a couple days, talk about it with a spouse or friend. Acknowledge that you can improve, and set an example for your co-workers.
Ultimately, Tugend says that mistakes made from a willingness to experiment—rather than carelessness—aren’t failures at all.
“If, in the aftermath of a mistake, we are willing to look back and figure out what went wrong (and if it was because we were careless or lazy, then try to correct it for next time), then that’s a good outcome,” she writes. “That doesn’t mean mistakes themselves are good, but their aftermath—tracing back why we made them and what we learned from them—can be very helpful in avoiding mistakes in the future.” One+
One+ March 2011