Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How to encourage productive reactions to mistakes in the workplace

A terrific paper came out late last year on the psychological impact of employee mistakes and how to promote more productive approaches to dealing with mistakes or failures at work. The paper is entitled "Guilt By Design: Structuring Organizations to Elicit Guilt as an Affective Reaction to Failure," by Vanessa Bohns of the University of Waterloo and Francis Flynn of Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Bohns and Flynn contrast two reactions to failure: one is guilt, and the other is shame. The authors conclude that the guilt response is more productive than the shame response, because, as they write, "guilt is more likely to inspire employees to rectify their mistakes rather than to dwell on them or react in other nonconstructive ways." Guilty feelings derive from a knowledge that others are let down and shameful feelings signal that the person is inadequate in some way. Bohns and Flynn conclude that the guilt feeling will "increase motivation and performance" when dealing with failure and the shame feeling will decrease it - resulting in outcomes such as ignoring, hiding or blaming others. So managers should aim to promote guilt versus shame when dealing with failures in their organizations.

I (and some colleagues with whom I discussed the paper) had difficulty viewing "guilt" as a behavior managers should encourage for any reason. As I thought about it, I found it easier to think of guilt as a label encompassing a productive approach to mistakes and failure and shame as a label describing an unproductive approach. (Apologies to the authors if I've totally corrupted their arguments.)

The paper asserts that aspects of company culture and organization ("social cues") can inspire the productive approach or encourage the negative. If reporting a mistake leads to a verbal beat-down, you'll be less likely to share what you experienced, even if it affects others.

I pulled out three more keys on encouraging productive response to failure. These are aligned with approaches discussed elsewhere on the site and in the book:

  1. Autonomy and control - workers who have more say and control over their work are more likely to respond productively when things go wrong.
  2. Feedback - a culture of rich, candid timely feedback (even negative feedback) elicits good responses to failure. Bohns and Flynn rightly point out that most managers give negative feedback poorly or not at all; and most employees are incented to minimize/avoid negative feedback.
  3. Appreciating impact on colleagues - being aware that mistakes affect our colleagues (the authors term it "outcome interdependence") causes us to seek to correct them and share information. 
Bohns and Flynn write that "these job characteristics will not always make people feel good." This is true in the short run. Confronting failure is unpleasant and scary. But a culture that is willing to confront mistakes without stigmatizing the individuals who make them is a far better (and likely far more successful) place to work in the long run.  

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