How Making Mistakes Can Make Us Better

We fear failure, but how can we use then to improve ourselves. In The Mistake Manifesto by Alina Tugend, she talks about managing directs, and how to handle your own mistakes. Below is an excerpt and more links about failure – Harvard Business Review has a series on failure.

The Mistake Manifesto: How Making Mistakes Can Make Us Better (Click to Download)

We often send mixed messages. Most managers see themselves as fostering innovation and creativity, but in reality they don’t. They often send overt messages that it’s okay to offer honest feedback or confess to errors, but there is still a covert message that “you better not challenge me and you better not screw up,” and that just creates cynicism.

So what do we do about this? How do bosses “fix the learning, not the blame?” It’s not easy to change work environments that are focused on fixing the blame, but it can be done.

Teach supervisors about growth mindsets versus fixed mindsets. Research has also shown that when managers are offered workshops on such concepts and provided with scientific testimony on how the brain can grow throughout life, and/or given exercises to show how abilities can be developed, they become more flexible and open in their judgments, more invested in teaching employees and more accepting that mistakes are part of the process. They are also more likely to accept negative feedback, because they’ll see it as less of a judgment of their competence and more as a potentially useful insight.

Make sure you don’t say one thing and do another. When people are told it’s okay to make mistakes, they are more willing to experiment and thus tend to become more proficient over the long-term. Studies of healthcare workers learning a new website system (there was no formal training so they had to learn by trial and error) were more willing to try out different software applications and test new features when their managers consistently did two things: explicitly stated that making mistakes would be okay, and didn’t punish them for mistakes.

Experimentation was much more rare in those departments where managers gave mixed signals by encouraging experimentations verbally but maintaining a reward system that punished failure. These mixed signals also created confusion and mistrust among employees.

Mistakes shouldn’t just be accepted, but rewarded. There’s a great anecdote about Tom Watson, IBM’s founder. A promising junior executive at IBM was involved in a risky venture for the company and managed to lose over $10 million in the gamble. When the nervous executive was called into Watson’s office, he assumed he was going to be asked to resign. Instead, Watson said, “You can’t be serious. We just spent $10 million educating you!”

Maybe that’s going too far, and perhaps most bosses wouldn’t be so understanding. But, the idea of making deliberate mistakes—doing something common wisdom says won’t work—is a way to accelerate learning and creativity. That has to be within reason, of course. Drilling for oil where there probably isn’t any would be a deliberate mistake, but would be so costly that it would be insane to try it. On the other hand, advertising pioneer David Ogilvy, when he tested ideas, deliberately included ads that he thought would not work in order to test and improve his assumptions.

Learn to communicate well. This has become a cliché, but the reality is, communication is more than talking to each other. Doing it right needs to be taught and practiced. For example, the former chief ethics officer at Northrop Grumman had managers practice unpleasant conversations so they could offer constructive criticism without being hurtful. Such methods are more likely to serve everyone’s interests, as managers will be able to offer sound advice and the employee will be less likely to become defensive and more likely to learn. Ideally, the opposite would be true, as well.

So far, I’ve focused on allowing people to make mistakes and then addressing them. The other side of the coin is that those we consider superstars are allowed to make mistake after mistake and are never challenged or even questioned. This applies to many of the people who were involved in Enron, say, or the institutions that were part of the financial meltdown.

Many were men and women who had always been successful, and therefore they believed, and others believed, that they couldn’t fail. They were considered so talented that they couldn’t be touched. This is a sign of a different sort of fixed mindset: they’re such successful that they can’t possibly screw up. But to quote Bill Gates, “Success if a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” If you believe you can’t make a mistake, then you can’t learn. Everyone gets better if they are appropriately questioned and challenged.

One other key ingredient in making mistakes intelligently is to know how to apologize and how to accept apologies. A proper apology has three elements: an acknowledgment of the fault or offense, regret for it, and responsibility for it—and, if possible, a way to fix the problem. Because we often don’t separate these three aspects, we frequently get caught up in who is to blame and find it difficult to apologize.

Apologizing needs to be a communication rather than an expression of regret, because expression is one-sided—more like a monologue that aims to get something off your chest. Communicating should be a dialogue that works toward a resolution. We need to learn this on a personal basis and companies need to learn this in the public realm.

Related Articles:

Seth’s Blog: How to fail

The Right Way to Respond to Failure

Failure Is Failure

The Positive Power of Failure

Visualize Failure

The Art of Admitting Failure

When Failure Hits

Failing and Learning with the Playpump

When the Invincible Become “Vincible”

Today’s Innovation Can Rise from Yesterday’s Failure

Avoiding Catastrophic Failures in Process Improvement

ChangeThis: Issue 81 (

Alina Tugend: Is There a Limit to Forgiveness? Yes (


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s