Are you still failing or are you already learning?

Today I would like to take a look at the connections between mistakes, learning and leading teams. I will discuss how mistakes influence our everyday life (positive as well as negative) and how a healthy attitude to failures can be helpful in personal development as well as in the management and development of employees. 

So let’s get started …

Learning

When I started dealing with this topic, the word “learning” haunted my mind. Learning –  Actually a quite trivial term. After all, learning is something we do every day. Isn’t it?

To familiarise myself with the term, I looked at what the friendly people at Wikipedia had to say about it. There, learning is defined as.

“Learning is the intentional and incidental acquisition of skills.”

Aha, so basically the process of learning is the acquisition of skills, which can be either intentional, as deliberate and purposeful, or implicit (incidental) or incidental (accidental).

In the former learning behaviour, the learning process is triggered either by oneself or by another person. E.g. if you pick up a textbook to refresh your knowledge of the latest findings in quantum mechanics, this is called intentional learning. It is the same in school when the teacher asks you to do a curve discussion for the task on page 43. In both cases, the impulse to learn is triggered directly by someone.

The casual acquisition of skills can be either incidental or implicit. Here the learning happens randomly or incidentally. For example, children learn to walk or speak this way.

Other motoric skills such as cycling were also acquired in this way, because cycling is not only learned through the pure desire, but through the implicitly learned interaction between the sense of balance and various muscle groups, which then ultimately (often only after several tries and failed attempts) lead to desired stay on the saddle. 

Perhaps some of you also remember your first painful experience with a hot stove, where you found out that the cooking area not only produces delicious biscuits, but can also hurt like hell. A classic example of an unintended, i.e. incidential, experience.

If we look at these examples, learning can also be divided into two other categories, namely learning from others and learning from one’s own mistakes. If we pick up the book, for example, to learn more about how to be a good painter, we usually learn from the mistakes of others. We will probably be able to apply some of the things from this book in practice, and thus avoid making mistakes of our own. 

But we can also buy canvas and paints ourselves and just go ahead and collect our own experiences (and maybe later write a book about it. 

We can expand our own knowledge by building on the knowledge of others or by making our own experiences learn from our own mistakes. 

Mistakes

But what is such a mistake? Colloquially, something that “went wrong”. Ok, so far clear. But is there possibly a more precise definition? Let’s also look at common definitions. The Wikipedia defines an error as:

An error is the deviation of a state, process or result from a standard, the rules or a goal”

It is therefore inherent in an error that it deviates from a predefined expectation. 

The DIN EN ISO 9000 the German industry standard, which defines the terminology for quality management, sees it very similarly. Here, too, we are talking about a non-fulfilment, i.e. a deviation from a given thing.

“Feature value that does not meet the specified requirements”

To get a little closer to the term error, I took a look at the German Duden to find out which word combinations arise in connection with errors. I looked for a few minutes over the terms, left word combinations and tried to understand what is behind them. Interestingly, the more I read through the terms the search had shown me, the more something happened to me. 

Do you fancy a little experiment? Then I’ll take a little moment and look at the next picture. Look at the word in the middle: Failure. The best thing to do is read it out loud. And then let your gaze wander outwards and look at the other terms. Say it in your head or say it out loud. 

So, did something happen?

Well, of course I don’t know if anything or what just happened to you, but I can briefly describe what I had noticed about myself when I had let the word “failure” circle around in my head for some time: I had a really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, a bit like a bad premonition creeping up on you, as if you had done something wrong. 

I found it strange that the mere conceptual confrontation with failure has an effect on how you feel at the moment. Why is that? Or rather: Is it really the case?

According to the psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, humans have a “catastrophic brain”, i.e. one that is programmed for catastrophes or the avoidance of them. What sounds a bit like popular science can be explained quite well by looking at the history of human development.

When our ancestors still roamed the world as hunter-gatherers, they were surrounded by numerous dangers. Enemy tribes wanted to get at you, wild animals didn’t see people but a tasty meal, and poisonous fruits and mushrooms could quickly cost you your life.

Those who shone in the buffalo hunt through constant clumsiness with the spear risked starvation or freezing to death in winter. Whoever failed to look for fresh tracks of wild animals in the forest, or failed to recognise them, risked becoming dinner himself. Mistakes could have been potentially fatal. Learning from those mistakes or anticipating and avoiding them (if they did not end in premature rejection) was therefore important for survival.

This error- and danger-focused functioning of the brain made sense at the time, as it could help to avoid potential dangers.

But nowadays? In principle, we live in a much safer world than back then. But the brain has not yet discarded certain patterns. According to the Robert Koch Institute1, the number of people suffering from depression in 2015 – based on WHO surveys – was 322 million, or 4.4% of the world’s population. Germany was even above the average with 5.2% or 4.6 million sufferers, and the trend is rising. The number of suicides in Germany in 2018 was 93962. And these are the official numbers, without unreported cases. Negative thought patterns are widespread.

In addition, we live in a culture that is determined by appearances and superficialities. Attention is focused on the advertisements and positive messages of others in the social networks, where everything is always going right.

You know this, don’t you? The envious squinting at the perfection of others. The perfect couple that only posts happy photos. The holiday photos of dreamy beaches. The six-packs trained in just two weeks. And all the other countless things that we are confronted with every day, intentionally and unintentionally, and that leave a bad taste in our mouths because your relationship isn’t going so perfectly at the moment, the last holiday was only at the caravan campsite in Brandenburg and the six-pack is there but hidden under a good layer of belly fat. 

In a world in which the ideal is perfect and which is developing into media narcissism , the deviation from the ideal is perceived as wrong. And what does that do to us then? Because what, again by definition, was the deviation from a predefined standard? That’s right, a mistake!

And once you have internalised this pattern, it can quickly lead to a fatal, repetitive conclusion: I made a mistake – I am wrong. The pattern can then extend to a person’s entire perception of mistakes. Self-doubt ensues and mistakes are only perceived as negative.

In addtion, the whole thing is facilitated by our education system and our upbringing, which aims to avoid mistakes. While as children we were still experts in learning from mistakes, the picture changes as soon as we start our education. Correct answers are rewarded, wrong ones punished with bad grades. To make matters worse, we are now more exposed to comparison with others and are also put into a grid. The system categorises students according to whether they are failing or passing. Already in the first classes, we are put into pigeonholes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, insufficient. A short time later we learn what an average is … and also when we are below average. 

So, what now? Well, in principle, one could start not to regard every error as negative. Because not every deviation from an existing standard has to be bad. If there were no deviations, consciously or unconsciously, we would still see the earth today as a disc resting on four elephants carried by a giant turtle – ouch!

America would not have been discovered, or presumably much later, if Christopher Columbus had not mistakenly deviated (several thousand kilometres) from his actual goal of discovering India.

The developed heart drug Sildenafil could not really be used as such, but had a completely different side effect – it caused a considerable improvement in the erection of many male patients. Without this “deviation from the prescribed requirements”, the drug Viagra would not be available in pharmacies today.

And where would humans be if there were no spontaneous mutations in evolution? That’s right, we wouldn’t exist at all. Life, if it had arisen at all, would be concentrated in a few single-celled organisms in the oceans.

So if you make a mistake, that’s no reason to feel bad. Mistakes can have negative consequences, but they don’t have to. And sometimes it depends on how you look at it. But one thing is very important to understand. It can happen that you do something wrong, but that does not mean that you are wrong.

The Dalia Lama once said: 

Be grateful for the difficult things that happen to you in life, because they allow you to grow.

There is a lot of wisdom in this short sentence for building your own positive misperception. Because whether you take a mistake as a crushing admission of your own inability, or as a challenge to improve your own skills, is in many cases just a matter of how you look at it. Because things happen whether you want them to or not.

The boss who drives you mad because he changes his mind every week, blames you for his own mistakes and bullies employees can be seen as a reason why your workplace is hell on earth. But it can also be seen as a chance to build up your own resilience. Because only through it, you have the opportunity to test and expand your own limits and to try out techniques to not lose your smile even in such situations.

And it is the same with mistakes. Whether big or small, they are an opportunity to questionyour own experiences and behaviour and possibly find one or two things to acquire new skills. We would do well to see mistakes like children again, namely as completely natural events, the overcoming of which allows one to develop further. Through this way of looking at things (and yes, this is not always easy), you can develop a positive way of looking at mistakes. Because if you turn “I made a mistake – I’m wrong” into “I made a mistake – I can become better because of it”, you can also improve your own perception considerably in a positive way.

Leading

But what does that have to do with leading people?

Quite simply, if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. Or in the context of this article: If you don’t see your mistakes as an opportunity to improve yourself, you can’t teach others to do so either. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

But do you even need a positive failure culture in the team?

I argue that yes. Because what happens when team members don’t dare to make mistakes? Then employees become insecure, don’t try things out, don’t get involved. An employee who is exposed or punished for mistakes will try to sweep mishaps under the carpet. This leads to a classic avoidance strategy. As a consequence, things are concealed from the lead or even from other team members. Mistakes are not allowed to happen, so they are made to disappear. The lead then loses the relationship to the team. Decisions are left to him alone.

Does this sound like the autonomous teams in which employees contribute with passion and potential and we benefit from the knowledge of all, the collective cooperation? Probably not!

There is an old saying that hoes, 

No one who has ever been beaten for a lie has learned to love the truth.”

The same also applies to mistakes, because: 

“Nobody who has ever been punished for a mistake has learned to love learning through it”

And not only does a negative failure culture inhibit the team and limit its productivity, we as leaders are responsible for developing our people. And what better way to do that than to let our employees fail in a controlled way and thereby help them learn? Exactly!

But how do you build a positive culture of failure in which employees see failure as a potential incentive to improve?

Well, the basic ingredients are basically no different from those of good leadership: Trust, motivation, role model functions, authenticity, psychological security and the right mindset.

In my experience, one is well advised not to focus on the error culture at all, but on the team and its development. A positive failure culture then develops all by itself. In most cases, a healthy team atmosphere and a positive failure culture go hand in hand. Let’s take a look at what you can do to promote both.

Psychological security – Psychological safety – It is important to create a positive environment in which employees feel psychologically safe. Only those who know that they will not be punished for mistakes will dare to take risks and expand their comfort zone. Only then is there a chance to learn from one’s mistakes. As a lead, you should avoid scolding your staff for mistakes. Especially not in front of the whole team.

In addition, you should be sensitised to your team members pointing the finger at each other. You should act immediately and make it clear that mistakes are allowed to happen and that anyone can make a mistake. By intervening promptly, you send the message that it is perfectly OK to make mistakes. In addition, employees realise that the lead will even protect them in the event of a mishap, which makes them feel more confident in dealing with the mistake.

In addition, this creates the awareness that the topic of “mistakes” is not taboo in the team and may be discussed openly. This can counteract the covering up or ignoring of mistakes.

We culture: It has also proved helpful to create a “we” culture. It is then said, for example, “We have achieved this goal” or “We have not achieved it”. If one tries to learn from mistakes, one speaks of “What can we do to achieve this or that?

Verbal integration avoids the separation between lead and staff. It is made clear. “We are all the same.” This has a strong effect on the role model function, because if we are all equal and the lead is allowed to make mistakes, then I am allowed to do the same.

That goes without saying, you think? It should be. But practice shows that there are always supervisors who talk about a “you” and thereby more or less consciously put themselves on a different level than the team.

Rules – In my experience, another means of creating emotional security in the team are rules. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Rules restrict you, forbid you to do things or force you to stick to something. How is that supposed to help you feel safe if you are being monitored?

Quite simply: The rules have to come from the team and be developed together. In my current team we have a lot of rules. But very few of them come directly from me. They usually come about when a team member makes a suggestion for improving a process and, if it is accepted by everyone, we manifest it as a rule.

These rules give us security in the team. Everyone can refer to them. They create a (self-designed) framework in which we can move safely. 

If you are just starting to establish rules with your teams and don’t really know how to establish this culture without the team feeling threatened, the following tip can help: Start playfully. 

Perhaps the employee who has uttered a rude swear word because the bug still couldn’t be solved, has to throw a round of cake. Try to make it clear that rules are there to hold the team down, not to monitor them. 

Role model function – Another step towards a positive culture of mistakes is to be aware of your own role model function. Mistakes happen, even to you. Deal with them openly!

Many leaders, not only younger ones, try not to admit their own mistakes because they see it as their own weakness that needs to be hidden from the team. After all, you are a leader and a superior and have no mistakes to show. This is often accompanied by the fear that one will no longer be respected as a leader or will be “eaten” by the team if one openly admits mistakes. This is a fallacy! Admitting mistakes as a leader, pointing out measures to improve and then implementing them creates trust and promotes the openness of employees to address their own mishaps. If the lead shows vulnerability, then you (the employee) can do the same.

Wording – “Pay attention to what you say!” could be the next tip. And actually, that says it all. Do you remember the experiment from the beginning? Did looking at the mistake words for a long time also give you a queasy feeling?

This also happens subliminally with your employees when you talk about “having failed the sprint” or when you ask the team what they can learn from “their mistakes”.

In your choice of words, try to use the word “mistakes” less, or replace it with positive phrases. For example, you could talk about “not reaching the sprint goals” or ask what “can be done better next time”.

However, you should speak very clearly and specifically about a mistake if you have made one yourself. Otherwise you might be suspected of trying to talk your way out of it or of minimising your mishap by using vague wording. This could make your staff suspicious of whether you are really serious about openly dealing with mistakes.

A good mantra that I like to use in my team(s) here is the saying

Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn“.

As simple as it sounds, it has a profound effect on building a positive error culture in the team. If you establish this (or similar) guiding principle in your team, you create a kind of contract that everyone in the team can refer to. Of course, it is important that (especially) you live by it.

Balance between praise and criticism– In addition to the appropriate choice of words, you should also make sure that you maintain a balance between praise and criticism in the team. A common mistake that I have made myself is to praise the team only for its successes, but to hold back criticism or to leave it out entirely.

But if you hold back criticism and do not address failure, you risk that the team will not be able to build up resilience. If a major malfunction does occur, there is a risk that the team will find it more difficult to deal with the situation because it is not used to mistakes.

Let your employee make mistakes – A no-brainer, right? A positive error culture can only develop if employees make mistakes. Otherwise you have no chance to influence the culture.

But do you know this? Your team is discussing the JSON payload of the new interface. Arguments and ideas are tossed back and forth and you feel the inner urge to intervene because you already suspect the direction the solution will take – It definitely won’t work that way. You’ve done it a thousand times.

And what do you do as a good manager? You jump into the discussion, explain why the team’s approach is “wrong” and tell them how to do it right. This way they learn faster, avoid mistakes and can experience vividly why you lead them and not the other way around.

Wrong! You sit back, shut up, listen to the argument for the most likely solution and then say, “Ok, let’s try it.”

And there are three reasons for that.

First, no matter how much experience you have, you can still be wrong. Maybe you missed a detail, or you’re not that deep in the subject. Then you would still learn something. Crazy, isn’t it?

Secondly, only when the team is allowed to try something out can you go into the discussion afterwards about whether it was good or whether a different approach might have been better. The “let’s try it out” mentality helps the team develop into a self-motivated team if the urge to explore is not suppressed but strengthened.

Thirdly: If you lead your employees only with your knowledge, then they can only become as good as you are. But if you let them make their own mistakes, then they can develop further and even grow beyond you.

Of course, there are also highly critical processes in which you, as the lead, have to intervene with your experience to ensure that, for example, harm is averted from the client. But let’s be honest. There are often many roads to Rome, and very few of us work on software for heart surgeons. So weigh up the context, and where you can enable your staff to develop through controlled failure: Do it! 

Ask for advice. Offer advice – If you show that you don’t know everything (and no leader does, even if some pretend to), you are authentic and this creates additional security. Don’t forget the incredibly powerful role model function of your role. If you ask for help, your staff will dare to ask for help. You could then offer your help and support the employee.

If you do not show any gaps in your knowledge, there is a great danger that your staff will not do so either. After all, they do not want to appear weak in the eyes of the person who has considerable influence over their salary increase and further development.

Review – Leadership advocates are generally said to be bad at collecting and processing data, whereas their management counterparts are true – sometimes overzealous – artists at it. But well, prejudices abound and we can clear up this one right now.

If you want to build a healthy culture of error, a good gut feeling is a decent help, but you shouldn’t rely on it alone.

Just as leadership can be measured, so can the state of the failure culture in the team. One of the things I use for this is a quarterly survey in which I ask various questions about leadership and team health – and also about the failure culture in the team. I mainly focus on 3 points.

  1. Do we have an open and regular feedback culture? This is important to allow conclusions to be drawn from the answers as to whether the team feels safe. Keyword: psychological safety. 
  2. Does the manager encourage the employees to try new things? If this is not perceived, measures must be taken to change this, because trying new things is, as explained, the basis of learning and failure.
  3. Is it perceived that I as a leader am also open to being talked to about my own misconduct and do I accept this feedback and try to work on my development areas?

Let me conclude by saying that all the tips mentioned are of course no guarantee for building a successful error culture. Every team is different and needs different methods. But most of the tips will get you going in the right direction. Try it out. And if it doesn’t work, learn from it and try something else.

In this sense: Fail, learn and become successful

  1. https://www.rki.de/DE/Content/Gesundheitsmonitoring/Gesundheitsberichterstattung/GesundAZ/Content/D/Depression/Daten_Fakten/daten_fakten_depressionen_inhalt.html
  2. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/583/umfrage/sterbefaelle-durch-vorsaetzliche-selbstbeschaedigung/

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