Learning From Mistakes in the Workplace

10 min. read

If you or a member of your team makes a mistake you should treat it as a learning opportunity rather than a failure.

Making mistakes doesn’t need to be the end of the world. If you or a member of your team makes a mistake you should treat it as a learning opportunity rather than a failure. Building a team or an organization that is willing to learn as it grows means you will create a powerful group that can think on the fly and reacts to stimuli that would ordinarily scupper the best-laid plans by other outfits. Leaving from mistakes is a wonderfully productive thing to do if used correctly.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

– Henry Ford

Safety first

When a mistake is made you will need to fix the problem first and foremost. Figure out if there is any danger to individuals or the company and make certain that whatever the error is it is sorted out effectively. This is an important step in the learning process as well as you will get information about how something happened and why it failed. Working on the reasons for the failure or mistake will reveal much about the problem at hand, and how to prevent it from happening again in the future.

Build a Culture that embraces learning

Leaders create and reinforce a culture that doesn’t play the blame game. Pointing fingers and laying blame is not part of positive workplace culture. To excel in business and build a great team you need a culture that promotes communication and collaboration as well as understanding. The people on the team need to feel comfortable to come forward with any mistakes that have been made and want to learn from any failures that do occur.

Look through a lens of learning

Using the correct lens to view a problem makes it easier to learn from. If you are just angrily going about blaming people you won’t get anywhere at all. Everyone involved in the project needs to share an understanding of mistakes that could be made and work together to make sure that they don’t occur again. Different organizations have different failure points. Research and development may fail many times and in the failings learn a great deal which results in success. Failure of products after they have been manufactured may mean retooling an entire factory or manufacturing plant or facility.

Invite collaboration

A problem shared is a problem halved. Being open to ideas from your team members means you will get help with fixing any mistakes made. Getting thinking minds involved promotes better collaboration and this, in turn, builds team participation. Getting any unique observations or analysis of any mistakes or failures promotes positive workplace culture rather than devolving into defensiveness and blame.

Don’t shoot the Messenger

Instead of blaming the messenger or worse, inviting them to bring you news of any failings, will foster a better culture in the workplace and also help catch any problems earlier than if the people who work with you are afraid to come forward. Making sure that they feel comfortable to ask questions or air concerns will stand you in good stead down the line. It’s important that you don’t shoot the messenger but rather make them feel rewarded by the experience.

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”

– John Dewey

Detecting Mistakes

“You will only fail to learn if you do not learn from failing.”

– Stella Adler

A mistake isn’t always a hugely costly problem immediately. Some mistakes can have knock-on effects down the line that could have been avoided if they were caught earlier. Spotting big mistakes isn’t difficult. In fact most of the time it’s downright easy. However, in many organizations, a mistake can go undetected because it’s not deemed likely to be a problem. The goal should be to detect the mistake as early as possible and then use it as a learning exercise to make sure that the mistake doesn’t continue to happen. Analyzing any mistake without bias and without preconceptions will give you a clearer perspective of the issue or issues at hand. It also gives your team members a chance to get to grips with any mistakes that were made and to learn from them.

Questions to ask during an analysis of the mistake:

• What was the team member trying to do?

• Why did it go wrong?

• When did it go wrong?

• What could have been done differently?

Hold People Accountable

Some mistakes have serious consequences. While blaming people isn’t good for company morale or culture, there are instances when certain acts are unacceptable. For certain mistakes, there need to be consequences. If you find yourself in a position where you have to fire someone for negligence or something has occurred where there is a proverbial “price to pay” you need to confront it head-on. Telling those team members who are directly and indirectly affected the reason for the consequences and what happened. It needs to be clear to all involved why it warranted the disciplinary action that was taken. This will act as a deterrent in the future as well as a learning opportunity for the organization as a whole.

Apply any Lessons Learned

Learning lessons from mistakes is all well and good but if you don’t apply the knowledge in practice you won’t reap the benefits of the exercise. If you don’t use the knowledge you have gained in the real world then your team will most likely revert back to habitual behavior patterns and that means you have not learned as a team and mistakes will continue to happen. You need to ensure that you put any lessons learned into practice or the time spent figuring out the problem is wasted. Review your progress as you go. This will give you a clear indication of where you are at. Work with your team and managers to find the best way of using your newfound knowledge to successfully prevent you and your team from repeating past errors.

“Making mistakes simply means you are learning faster. ”

– Weston H. Agor