How to Talk About Mistakes (So You Can All Just Move On)
To improve future performance, teams must learn from their mistakes. Despite being an irrefutable truth, few teams do this well. This is not due to a lack of willingness on their part - most organizations devote countless hours to after-action reviews, project postmortems and similar analysis to help the team reflect on what it did wrong and avoid similar mistakes in the future. More often than not, these actions fail to drive any real change in future outcomes.
Why do project evaluations fail? Usually, it's because the team is having the wrong conversations. Instead of detecting and dissecting failures, they talk about mistakes in a way that is merely deflecting ("the timing wasn't right for this particular project") or superficial ("this individual didn't have the right training to execute the task"). There's no deep-diving into why things unfolded the way they did.
A lot of this is due to personality. People come to projects with different perspectives, expectations and levels of resilience; whereas some people view failure positively, others might feel bruised, violated or angry if their mistakes are unpacked in public. These reactions can become problematic if they are not managed correctly. As a result, how the team talks about failure is of great importance to managers and a major determinant of future team success.
The Fine Line Between Failure and Blame
Failure and blame go hand-in-hand in most organizations and societies. From an early age, we're taught that admitting to failure means taking the blame for whatever went wrong. There's little scope for conscious experimentation, where the whole point of the action is to make mistakes so that the lessons of failure can be fully learned.
Within that framework, it's clear that while we all anticipate failure and its cousin of blame, we don't all respond to it in the same way. Back in the 1930's, psychologist Saul Rosenzweig used personality theory to define three types of people who, he observed, were likely to have a dysfunctional relationship with failure and blame:
- Extrapunitive personalities unfairly blame others for mistakes, regardless of how the mistake unfolded. Extrapunitive types are overrepresented in the business world where it's commonplace to point fingers at any team other than your own
- Impunitive personalities deny the mistake occurred or reject that they played any role in it; these people typically lack emotional resilience and may become angry or hurt when criticized
- Intropunitive personalities judge themselves more harshly than the situation warrants, see failure where none exists and/or accept an unfair proportion of the blame. Due to cultural norms, women are more likely than men to be intropunitive.
Based on Rosenzweig's research, Ben Dattner, author of The Blame Game, has broken out 11 modern personalities that struggle to diagnose and address the root causes of mistakes. Read about them in the Harvard Business Review article, Can You Handle Failure?
The underlying theme is that how individual team members talk about and react to failure based on their personalities determines how well the team learns from it - or suffers greater failure down the road. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help the entire team learn from its mistakes and move forward.
First, it's important to understand how each team member might deal with failure in themselves and others. Have the team take a personality test such as the Typefinder to understand how each individual functions under stress. This insight can help illuminate whether they fall into one of the Rosenzweig/Dattner dysfunctional categories, and thus might disproportionately fault others or take on too much responsibility for mistakes. When exploring failure, consider whether views are being tainted by extrapunitive, impunitive, or intropunitive reactions. Never assume that you understand what each individual is thinking or how they might react to the failure.
Give the team space
Some failures are simply embarrassing, such as the type that occur because the team failed to follow process. Others are devastating, such as when the team puts many hours into a critical project and for whatever reason, the project fails. These failures are like bereavements and certain personalities, notably intropunitive types, need to work through the process in a similar way. Allow team members the time to work through their feelings of disappointment, denial and anger. That way, they'll be more resilient and ready to effectively process what happened when you run your postmortem.
Be clear on what went wrong
Avoid sugar coating what happened or resorting to the obvious reasons for why something went wrong. Stopping your postmortem at the first-order failures ("we didn't follow process") sells your team short since it assumes that the team is neither willing nor able to understand complex failures that are the result of multiple events. Instead, ask your team to look deep into root causes, with the aim of uncovering all the players, actions, and situational factors that fed into the failure, however small. Be sure to focus on the facts, so you can call the problem like it is without playing the "who did it?" game.
It's hard to admit mistakes, but having the courage to confront our own imperfections is crucial to creating an environment in which lessons can be learned. This means that you'll have to encourage everyone to speak - or anonymously write down - what they think happened, and you must not respond by denying their observations or seeking to allocate blame. Ideas must come from the team; only a collaborative approach can overcome individual biases and get to the truth of the matter.
Focus on the future
While it's important to talk about what went wrong and why, it's more important to focus on future and how the team is going to rectify its mistakes. At some point, you're going to have to stop the deep level analysis and talk about what happens next. Push your team to discuss creative, strategic and open-minded solutions for how you might avoid similar mistakes in the future. Looking forward, not backward, stops people from feeling demotivated and getting stuck for too long in a negative mood.
Reduce the stigma of failure
You can help everyone see the failure as a learning experience by sharing stories about mistakes you have made in the past that ultimately proved to be constructive. Seeing failure for what it is - a necessary part of innovation that, on this occasion, failed to achieve the desired results - can help the team to feel positive and reenergized about the situation. Spending social time together can also eliminate the tendency to blame and help the team get its confidence back.
Summing It Up
While we all know the importance of learning from mistakes, teams can really struggle to recover from major blunders. Handling failure and blame in a way that respects all personalities is key to your team's success. Leaders who approach mistakes with an open mind, and react to them in a measured way, can learn from failure and help others learn from it - so you can all move on.