We all make mistakes. I expect we’ve all had projects that have been, if not an outright failure, at least less successful than hoped. In fact, if you haven’t, it might be worth questioning whether you're challenging yourself enough.
Stretch is essential for leadership learning and development. Without it, your knowledge and capability will stagnate whilst the world moves on around you. Inevitably, stretch involves a risk of potential failure, so this article addresses the question: How do we ‘fail safe’ and leverage mistakes to maximise learning and enhance our performance at work?
Why is it important for leaders to learn from mistakes?
As stated by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson: "The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible." This is particularly true of leaders, who must drive businesses forwards in ambiguous, uncertain and unpredictable contexts, in which success cannot be guaranteed. To avoid being paralysed by indecision or inaction, leaders must develop the ability to learn from mistakes: fail safe, learn fast.
It's typically assumed that experience can mitigate the risk of failure, which of course it can to some extent, but experience doesn’t automatically lead to superior performance. Research with a range of experts from, stock market investors, to software designers, to wine tasters, reveals that performance of highly experienced ‘experts’ is often no better than that of novices, and can even get systematically worse with experience. The key point is that experience can lead to better performance, but it’s the quality of those experiences and how well the individuals have learnt from it that counts. Learning is the differentiator, not experience.
How do we learn to turn mistakes into performance improvements?
Edmondson’s research has shown that most business leaders believe that learning from failure is straightforward: Ask people to reflect on what they did wrong and encourage them to avoid similar mistakes in future.
The reality, though, is that it’s more complicated than it seems.
What are the key elements of learning from mistakes or failures?
Approach challenges with a growth mindset
The way we approach challenging situations is strongly influenced by our mindset, and Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has demonstrated that success is determined not just by ability, but by the beliefs and goals that we bring to situations. Dweck developed the concept of a growth mindset - the belief that, in essence, the more you stretch yourself the more your ability grows, which creates a receptiveness to challenging situations, knowing that this will enhance performance in the long run. Mistakes and setbacks are accepted as valuable tools for success. In contrast, people with a fixed mindset believe that failure implies a lack of ability since they consider talent to be something that you either have (naturally), or you don’t. This encourages people to stay in their comfort zone, avoiding new or challenging situations that they believe could expose their lack of ability, which they perceive to be relatively fixed.
As a leader you’re in the spotlight, so exposing yourself to challenging situations which bring the possibility of failure can feel threatening and may push leaders into adopting a fixed mindset. Indeed, Dweck’s research has shown that a fixed mindset can be relatively easily triggered, by how people are praised, for example. If you have children, nieces, or nephews, consider how you praise them for getting a good grades at school. For example, do you say, ‘well done, you’re so clever!’ or do you say ‘well done, you worked really hard to prepare for that test’? The emphasis will reinforce, in their mind, what is most important for, and drives success. To a large degree, these mindsets will be created by the organisational culture and climate – are people rewarded for taking a calculated risk, even if it didn’t play out well, or are they simply celebrated for successful outcomes? Are people penalised for occasional mistakes or failures despite individuals’ best intentions and well-formed plans?
Seek and devour feedback on your performance – good and bad
The pace and intensity of the day-to-day means that many leaders barely have time to stop and look back at the consequences of their actions. Yet, the extent to which leaders seek feedback, how they react to it, interpret it, and use it, has a powerful impact on leadership learning and development.
Effective learning requires continuous monitoring of discrepancies between intended and actual outcomes. Leaders need to reflect on feedback to draw lessons about the effectiveness of their strategies and approaches. However, research shows that when presented with feedback, we can be quite poor at reflecting upon it. The way people make sense of their actions and performance feedback is often biased. ‘Confirmation bias’ means that we look for evidence to support what we want to - or already – believe.
However, top performers appear to use strategies to mitigate this bias. When provided with feedback on their performance, there is a difference between how strong performers process that information, compared to poorer performers. Neuropsychological research using brain scans, for example, shows that highly performing doctors (those who provide more accurate diagnoses) pay equal attention to feedback on their successes as they do their failures. Lower performing doctors, in contrast, paid more attention to their successes, resulting in a downward cycle of sub-optimal performance.
Even when confronted with feedback about mistakes, setbacks, or failures, there may be a tendency to play it down or interpret this feedback in a way that is less threatening to our self-esteem or self-image. We might attribute failure to external factors and conclude that there’s no need to change our own approaches or strategies. In contrast, unproductive reflection sees individuals ruminate excessively over what didn’t work, as opposed to what’s possible and changeable. Constructive reflection is a skill that needs honing like any other, including developing the ability to step outside of ourselves and observe our own thinking as if from an external perspective, for example. Without these skills, leaders will find it difficult to identify the changes needed to improve performance.
Prepare to feel less competent when trying out new strategies
Swedish psychologist, Anders Ericsson’s extensive research shows that dedicated, deliberate practice is necessary for the development and maintenance of many types of professional performance. In the world of business, aside from the odd training programme involving practice opportunities such as in high-fidelity business simulations, the majority of leadership ‘practice’ takes place on the job. Of course, it's all well and good listening to feedback, but performance will only improve once lessons derived from reflection are acted upon. This means identifying what to change and making a concerted effort to try out different strategies – and for those around them to provide the space and support to enable this.
Once leaders develop effective strategies to maximise their learning from their experience, you tend to see their development accelerate. In fact, I’m confident that the leaders who master the skills of learning from experience – such as reflection, planning, adaptation, self-evaluation, self-monitoring, self-motivation – will be those that progress the furthest and fastest in the future, surpassing those with a greater knowledge base or years of experience as change renders that knowledge and experience outdated.