Managing errors - Part 2: The corporate lone wolf

It is in line with the management zeitgeist to see mistakes as learning opportunities. Why is it, one wonders, that so many people find it so difficult to put this noble approach into practice? There are two aspects to this that deserve special attention. In this blog, I address two main suspects.

By now, many have understood that it pays to see mistakes as an opportunity to learn. By "mistakes" I mean those actions that lead to unintended results. The Anglo-Saxons have created an apt term for this: "Honest Mistake". Many have also understood that as soon as blaming is involved in connection with such an error, the learning opportunity is lost. And last but not least, more and more managers are becoming aware that whatever 'mistake' they are confronted with, their own or those of others, there are two learning processes. The personal reflection of the person who made the mishap and the organizational learning process that deals with the systemic contributing factors. For all of these insights, understood does not mean implemented. There is a big gap between understanding and application. This is at least my experience from various cultural projects in companies and from many years of self-observation. On the way to applying these noble principles, there are considerable obstacles to overcome. One of these obstacles is rooted in self-interest. Dealing with it illustrates to us the importance of the personal inner moral compass and the framework conditions in the company that are needed to establish a culture that makes the aforementioned learning processes possible. A culture that serves the reliability, safety, resilience and agility of the organization.

The lone wolf in the organization

As soon as we hear in the company about a mistake that has happened to a certain person, a subtle temptation emanates from this news. It offers us the chance to make ourselves look better in relation to the other person. All it takes is pointing out the person's mishap in any number of conversations with people in the organization. The subtlest of insinuations will do. Thick plastering is not necessary, it might even reveal the intention. This would be highly undesirable, as it goes hand in hand with a moral deficit and reveals unseemly self-interest.

That said, I do not impute to any reader that they would be so calculating. Further reading is therefore not necessarily worthwhile; it is - like everything in life - a free decision.

But how can it be that the mistake of another person gives us reason to behave in a morally dubious way? I would like to address two aspects that are partly responsible for this:

1. "It's the name of the game, stupid"!

Following the famous phrase of Bill Clinton's political advisor James Carville: "It's the economy, stupid". With this slogan, Carville emphasized the importance of the economy for his own campaign team during Clinton's election campaign. Here, the analogous variation of the saying points us to the relevance of the prevailing business environment. People always behave rationally in the context of a given framework. If this framework rewards individual performance in the company, no one should be surprised if people actually live by it.

2. The dishonest handling of human fallibility.

The temptation arises when the company has culturally failed to attribute an action of an employee that leads to an undesirable result not exclusively and above all not primarily to the failure of this person. It arises only where there is still a belief that people can work without error. There, where not only the trust in the employees is on shaky ground, but also the idea of how unwanted events occur. To see the causes exclusively in the hands of people is evidence of a blatant lack of knowledge and of a superficiality that is taking on almost shameful dimension these days.

Appeals are of no use

If we consider these two main causes of the "problem of the lone wolf in the organization," it makes little sense to try to eliminate it with appeals to morally intact self-management. An appeal not to behave selfishly in a system designed for self-interest is at best ambiguous cynicism. I advocate a decent way of addressing it. If a person is politely pointed out that he or she is about to suggest his or her special qualities as a reliable person by pointing out the faults of others, such a reference does not fail to have its effect. The only thing that has to be endured is a brief embarrassment, which, in my experience, subsides very soon.


If it is not possible with appeals, it is possible with personal commitment to a self-image that is not whitewashed with the shortcomings of others. I can, if I want to, consistently refrain from such mask make-up. Personal successes that come about without this dubious support feel even better on top of it. By the way, it is much easier to make the commitment if you are aware of your own fallibility without blinkers. It's enough to look in the mirror every evening and list all the things you failed at that day. Anyone who, with consistent application of this self-disciplining exercise, suddenly finds him- or herself confronted with the question of his or her own trustworthiness has won an important personal victory. Such purification strengthens and enables us to actively shape everyday life in a culture of trust. It is an old fact that one's own vulnerability makes us approachable and creates trust.

Error management, a function of self-leadership

If we manage not to use the mistakes of others for our own purposes of self-optimization, we make a decisive contribution to professional error management - in general. This is active error management. We do not need any advantageous framework conditions for this, such as a culture of trust can provide. Solid self-management is fully sufficient, even if it is only enough for an isolated solution in one's own environment.

Framework conditions that eliminate the lone wolf

The problem of the lone wolf can also be tackled at the cultural level in the company. There are two promising approaches here, both of which should be considered in parallel in organizational development:

1. Leadership approaches that have emerged for other reasons can provide relief: "Unboss the company", "Team orientation", "Agile organization" and many others. They all purify the organization and clean it from corrosion damage caused by strong power structures, hubris and silo thinking.

2. Education and knowledge transfer. This is about showing everyone in an appropriate way how unintentional events (popularly scolded as errors) come about. It is high time, especially in work environments strongly characterized by interdependencies, that we break away from the completely outdated assignment of full and sole responsibility to the person at the sharp end. In highly complex organizations, this view obscures in a way that can no longer be explained all the contributory, systemic aspects that lead to an occurrence. It trivializes inappropriately and, above all, it does not help us to get better, to make progress and to learn to understand the systems that we have built but that we can no longer really control.

We can get on this path in the development of the company by refraining from simply pinning undesirable events, the Honest Mistakes, on a person like Jewish stars. We can get rid of the bashing of human fallibility without the company degenerating into a pony farm where everything is allowed and nothing is punished. As a sparring partner, coach and organizational developer, I would be happy to talk with you about this exciting topic.