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Does your organizational culture enable the sharing and learning from failures?

Today is the ”International day of failure” – although nobody likes to admit when they’re wrong. Reluctance to own up to mistakes can be even more intense at consulting firms, where being right about things is exactly what they’re selling. Researchers Jonas Dahl and Andreas Werr at SSE decided to analyze organizational cultures of perfectionism, which the researchers termed as “positivity”, and found out that there were big differences between a leadership consulting firm and a communications consulting firm.

Dahl and Werr interviewed employees at a leadership consulting firm and at a communications consulting firm, both of which touted their excellence externally to clients and internally to staff. At the leadership firm, errors were not acknowledged nor shared. But at the communications firm, sharing errors internally and trying to learn from them were routine activities.

The two Swedish firms, "both had strong explicit ambitions to create ‘positive’ cultures with a focus on excellence, strength, and possibilities". Differences in how the firms built and maintained their cultures of positivity, however, determined whether staff hid or shared their mistakes.

After reviewing internal documents, observing team meetings, and interviewing 24 of the consultants, Dahl and Werr categorized the leadership consulting firm as having a trait-based positivity culture meant it touted its ideal consultant qualities, while its fixed-mindset left no room for consultants to admit, share, or learn from errors. On the other hand, the communications consulting firm’s experience-based positivity culture described its consultants’ ideal behaviors, its contribution to positive experiences, and its growth-mindset enabled consultants to share and learn from mistakes.

The difference between shame and guilt

The researchers realized that in the trait-based positivity, fixed-mindset culture, the consultants who made errors were more likely to feel shame, in the experience-based positivity and growth-mindset culture, making errors evoked a feeling of guilt.

"When you feel guilt, the reaction is more likely to be admitting and repairing errors and sharing the experiences", says Jonas Dahl.

 "If they felt shame, they overemphasized the costs of sharing errors and had a harder time seeing any benefits. If they felt guilt, the reaction is more likely to be admitting and repairing errors, sharing the experiences and see the benefit of doing so", says Andreas Werr.

So, what can the management do to avoid a company culture where doing something wrong can cause a feeling of shame?

"This general idealization of employees—being flawless, perfect, generous, courageous—that’s the problem", says Andreas Werr. "Because at the same time, people inevitably make mistakes. Then they hide their failures, and this discrepancy fuels these dynamics. But when you celebrate individuals’ efforts, and focus on experiences and behaviors, employees are enabled to share and learn from errors. Managers should be wary of generalized depictions of individuals as flawless. It’s often done with good intentions, but without thinking about how people react when they make errors, which they will sooner or later", he says.

"The best course for companies is to limit your performance goals and go for learning goals instead", adds Jonas Dahl.

Read more about their research here

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new
Albert Einstein