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A Constructive Approach to Mistakes: Avoid Danger, and It Will Kill You

August 23, 2019

Interview with Helga Pattart-Drexler and Wolfgang Mayrhofer

Where is the line between making mistakes and failing? How important is it to know who is to blame? And do we need scapegoats? Helga Pattart-Drexler, Head of Executive Education at the WU Executive Academy, and Wolfgang Mayrhofer, Professor of Management at WU Vienna, sat down for a joint interview to talk about aspects we like to ignore.

pic of a broken light bulb
Making mistakes is part of it - it depends on how you deal with it.

Failing vs. Making Mistakes

Ms. Pattart-Drexler, Prof. Mayrhofer, where is the line between making mistakes and failing?

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: For me, failing always has an existential aspect. If we fail, substantial areas are at risk or existential goals have not been reached. Yet this term is often wrongly used. Not living up to stakeholder expectations for once does not mean that my company has failed.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: It is indeed important to differentiate between those terms as they are often mixed up in companies. Some want a constructive approach to mistakes; others think that this includes being allowed to fail. I don’t agree with that. Nobody would like to sit back and watch a staff member steer the company towards bankruptcy.

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: I do not think that way either. Failure goes hand in hand with irreversible damage.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: Of course, there is a connection between mistakes and failure. Some mistakes are really stupid and lead to failure.

What are stupid mistakes?

Helga Pattart-Drexler: For me, mistakes are stupid if they are a result of carelessness. A constructive approach to mistakes includes admitting such mistakes, taking responsibility and learning from them.

Pic of a wrong maths equation
There are mistakes, and there are stupid mistakes.

A Constructive Approach to Mistakes vs. Innovation Culture

More and more companies strive to open up space for experiments and encourage employees to be more adventurous and not afraid of making mistakes as this is the only way that leads to innovation. Does this make any sense?

Helga Pattart-Drexler: Again, companies are mixing up separate concepts. Encouraging your employees to experiment is one thing. This can produce results that are useful to the company – or projects that flop. Encouraging mistakes is a different story. From a company’s perspective, I would not recommend doing that.

The German debt collection agency EOS regularly awards a prize for the “mistake of the quarter.” It is conferred on people responsible for a project or decision that went wrong. By doing so, the company wants to encourage employees to experiment. That is not a bad idea, is it?

Helga Pattart-Drexler: Yes, but I would not use the term “mistake.” I would rather encourage boldness than mistakes.

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: In the end, it is the way managers react to mistakes that matters most to employees. And here, actions speak louder than words. Those with power are entertained by “fools” only so far. If you strike a wrong note in your role as a fool, you might lose your head quickly. Therefore, it is crucial for organizations to clearly draw a red line when implementing a constructive approach to mistakes. But employees often quickly develop a collective implicit knowledge about what the red line looks like for certain executives anyway. Some care more about reputation than about a mistake that costs 80,000 euros – or vice versa. This is something to keep in mind.

Should executives and managers openly discuss their own mistakes?

Helga Pattart-Drexler: They should be role models. I talk to my employees about my mistakes too, ...

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: ... but of course those are the honorable mistakes.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: (laughs) Yes, surely! Those are small bloopers or an embarrassing situation I can laugh about later on. I want to show them: I share this with you, so you can learn from it and will not repeat the mistake. I want to show them that it is a good thing to talk about it and have the courage to admit mistakes. It seems to me that many executives still do not do that very often.

Pic of Helga Pattart-Drexler
Helga Pattart-Drexler talks to her employees about her own mistakes in order to exemplify a constructive approach to mistakes.

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: Especially in the MBA programs, the participants frequently ask, “How assailable and vulnerable can I be as an executive?” This is a question on many people’s minds. Sharing mistakes can make people realize that you are only human too. On the other hand, the law of the jungle often still reigns in companies, and as a result mistakes may be held against you. So weigh your options wisely.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: But how can we establish an open corporate culture if we as executives do not live by those principles?

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: Executives should be open towards mistakes. But a CEO oversharing and admitting mistakes during a press briefing on annual results would leave a bad impression on me as a shareholder of the company. It is the main task of the CEO to keep the shareholders and the supervisory board happy. So against this backdrop, I think that it is okay for people to have the illusion that someone competent without any faults is in charge. It is easier to admit mistakes on a middle management level or below. If you are in the spotlight like in politics, however, it becomes more difficult.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: Although, I must admit I would find it very refreshing if a politician would admit to a mistake or having put their foot in their mouth for a change. Imagine how liberating that would be, how authentic!

Analysing Mistakes vs. Blaming

For top athletes, analysing their mistakes when they have not reached their goals is common practice. Can companies learn from such analyses?

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: Yes, looking for mistakes thoroughly is indeed crucial in high-level sports. The weakest link may be the athlete themselves, the training routine, the material, the nutrition – everything you can influence yourself. Identifying the reason for a bad performance is important to achieve a better result next time. The same applies to companies.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: On the other hand, it then often happens that the weather and the equipment are blamed. In general, we are quick to start looking for a scapegoat – in sports as well as in business. It seems to me that people are quick to explain why a mistake was made without analyzing their part in the mistake.

This also happens in companies: project X has failed because colleague X did not deliver quickly enough or because the competition was too strong.

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: But is this wrong? Maybe that is the truth.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: Still, it would be better to also discuss your part in the story.

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: Of course, this phenomenon exists. Psychologists call it correspondence bias: for success, I take the credit, but for failure, I blame the circumstances. However, I do not think that you always have to blame yourself. Sometimes, the circumstances are indeed the cause. And this has to be taken seriously too. There is always an interplay between people and their environment. Overstressing the role of the individual is not helpful.

Does a constructive approach to mistakes require scapegoats?

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: Yes, because sometimes, finding and symbolically sacrificing a scapegoat is a form of relieve to the whole team. And scapegoats usually receive a good payment as a compensation. When a soccer team fails, the coach has to go. In some cases, it is necessary to give a clear social signal to the whole organization, to make a cut. Of course, this does not mean that companies always have to look for a scapegoat when something goes wrong. And neither does it mean that the scapegoat is the only one to blame. But a symbolic management act is important for a new beginning.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: The question is: does changing the top management alone reinstate a culture of trust? Usually, it takes more. The decisive factor is whether or not the organization changes and learns from mistakes.

Rewarding Mistakes?

The degree to which organizations learn from mistakes also depends on the incentives given to employees. What is the link between reward systems and a constructive approach to mistakes?

Helga Pattart-Drexler: The question is: for what kinds of achievements do we give out special rewards? In general, we have a strange approach to this topic. We reward performance but not boldness or willingness to experiment. In my opinion, this has to change. I am not very fond of bonuses and reward systems because their effects are very short-lived. You agree, don’t you?

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: Yes, I think monetary incentive systems are short-sighted. But there are a lot of non-monetary incentive systems that could be useful in combination with a constructive approach to mistakes. Not being punished for mistakes is already an incentive and creates a culture of boldness, openness and the willingness to take some risks.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: Creating spaces free of fear is a complex matter because it means something different to everyone. To this end, executives have to consider their employees as individuals to give everybody the space they need to be bold. This is not an easy task, especially in larger teams.

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: And then, it is harmful to play it safe and always strictly follow the rules. This kind of false security is dangerous. We can only discover new things if we broaden our horizon and become more open. There is a German saying on this topic: “Avoid danger, and it will kill you.” Look at the heroes in fairy tales and folk tales: they were never just successful; they also failed – but had a comeback later.

The interview was recently published in the print magazine personal manager 5/2019. You can read it here (in German).

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