The leaders' fear of the error culture

Dealing with work error in a non-punitive way is a real challenge for many a manager. It is counterintuitive and needs to be learned. The fear that refraining from accusations or even sanctions is an invitation to take it easier is a superstition. It is not appropriate in contemporary, complex settings and is evidence of a questionable and outdated understanding of leadership.

Learning from mistakes' has almost reached the status of a hype today. It is in everyone's mouth, is recommended by consultants and appears in many managers' leadership philosophies. It is currently widely accepted as an approach to continuous improvement, to further development and, above all, to increasing agility. Here and there, progress is actually being made with it. This will be the case in those companies that have succeeded in building a culture of error and anchoring it in their DNA. But many fail to do so. This is despite the fact that the error culture appears in corporate mission statements, but is not lived out in the real world of so many companies. There are reasons for this.

The non-punitive treatment of the work error

Let's start with the statement that an error culture is characterized by a fear-free handling of the work error. An organization can achieve this by enforcing the principle that such errors - also known as 'honest mistakes' - are never treated punitively. This type of error is neither intentional, deliberate, nor grossly negligent. This, in turn, means that negligence is basically accepted, in the sense that the people concerned must never suffer any disadvantages from such mistakes. For one or the other of you, this is a hefty statement. As a manager, what spontaneously comes to mind when you hear this?

I am aware that for some of you it is 'no news' and that you are wondering whether it is worth reading any further. No. It's not worth it. Because if your reaction is like this, you've come a long and valuable way in your organization. Then you know how safety can always be improved in today's complex operational environments. If, on the other hand, you have struggled, even briefly, it may be worth your while to continue reading. You may have caught yourself reading that negligence is okay, that your first thought started with the words 'Yes but...'. Whenever that crosses our lips or runs through our minds, there is another opinion involved. This one might rest on an understanding of the law that fails to wash away negligence with absolution. Not at all in a principle way. This is more than understandable, because in the justice system, negligence is very often punished. This means that with the trigger 'negligence' you unconsciously make an evaluation and intuitively judge. And already you are on the wrong track. The paradigm 'where there is fault - there is blame' has caught up with you. And this, although you had actually resolved to face the error with a different inner attitude in 2021. Stand firm! From now on, try to meet negligently committed work errors without judgment. Always!

Every thing goes?

Never judge? This thought could be stressful. After all, if negligent acts have no consequences in your company from now on, why should employees still make an effort? That would be like if everything in your company just went through - every thing goes? These are frightening prospects that you do not want to be responsible for. Uncertainty or even fear creeps in. Perhaps also signs of opposition to the error culture. Is toothless management being preached? Does everyone have to be nice to each other from now on and am I as the boss not allowed to say anything anymore? Is this total soft washing?

As a change agent in organizational development, I experience this uncertainty or critical defensiveness among managers time and again. It is understandable, because it is not only spurred by the fear that the great laissez-faire will now set in, or that there is even a threat of loss of control. It is also driven by the question of what role the manager has to play in such a scenario and how leadership must be designed so that it is possible to build up and anchor a culture of error. What is the point of you as a manager if people can do whatever they want and nothing has any consequences?

The mistake, an opportunity for everybody

Well, it would be a missed opportunity if a mistake had no consequences. But we should say goodbye to the idea that consequences can only take the form of accusations, reprimands or even punishments. We know they are the wrong ones. They lead to a culture of fear and not only inhibit progress and performance, but are corrosive to the work climate. There are many purposeful consequences. We quickly find them when we visualize the responsibilities of the stakeholders involved and ask how they can best meet them. In every incident, both the employees involved and their superiors have a responsibility. For the former, the first priority is the willingness and readiness to report incidents. Understandably, they only do so if they do not have to fear negative consequences. Afterwards, responsible action in analyzing the incident is characterized by open discussion and reflective self-analysis, which centers on personal 'lessons learned'. These are all unambiguous and visible signs of the person involved accepting his or her share of responsibility for what happened. If these signs are missing, the employee is in serious breach of his or her duty to participate in continuous improvement and must rightly expect sanctions for such omissions.

Shared, forward-looking responsibility

It is the duty of managers to take the time to analyze what has happened or to assign someone to do so. After all, mistakes are learning opportunities and represent a great asset. It is the responsibility of supervisors to address the systemic components that play a role in causing incidents and to ensure that remedial action is taken wherever possible. Unfortunately, managers who fail to meet this responsibility are rarely, if ever, sanctioned for their omissions. The fact that this is often the case is a widespread dysfunctionality in many organizations. In a mature, established error culture, both 'parties' accept their responsibility for what will be better in the future. The change in behavior due to a personal learning process and the change in the system that will stand safer and or more efficient. It is a shared 'forward looking responsibility'.

Once we understand this 'shared responsibility', it also clarifies the role of supervisors in dealing with events that have occurred unintentionally. However, there is another important component for managers to consider. In most cases, employees who are causally involved in incidents, especially those with a high impact, blame themselves. They feel ashamed and wish they could help make things right. As a supervisor, look for such opportunities. Support those involved and help to free them from the 'fault-blame paradigm' and appreciate the openness shown and the willingness to learn the lessons from the incident for themselves personally.

When a mistake happens, those affected usually feel responsible. If it is clarified for everyone in the company how everyone can assume responsibility in the above sense, a great deal has already been achieved. Even more can be achieved if managers develop an awareness of their shared responsibility in the event of a mistake being made by a member of their team.

Why does uncertainty arise?

This role clarification shows how leadership should be designed when mistakes happen. It uses the opportunity of the incident not only to improve the system, but also to deepen mutual trust. This clarification can encourage managers to deal with the work error in a non-punitive way. However, it does not take away the insecurity of those managers who fear that failure to reprimand or punish in the event of an error would have a negative impact on the team's work performance. What, then, would be the employees' reasons and motives for not putting in the same amount of effort? Is the assumption still alive that a threatened negative consequence has a motivating effect? In the educational environment, such an attitude is referred to as black pedagogy. Those who find themselves flirting with such outdated approaches to leadership are still caught up in the error-blame paradigm and have great difficulty understanding the connections.  Perhaps the more interesting question will help to provide orientation: What negative consequences does a company have to face if it upholds a culture of fear? What all is left undone and evaporates when everyone just follows the rules? When all decisions are shifted upwards. When there is no longer any willingness to take responsibility. When a strategy of holding oneself harmless is established for self-protection.

There is a lot at stake and it is up to the managers to decide how they want to bring about success. It is irrelevant whether success is understood as 'safety' or economic achievements. A well-entrenched culture of error serves both equally well.