Positive Psychology and Learning from Mistakes


In her Personality Matters series, Leslie Sachs examines the personalities and people issues that are found in technology groups, from cross-functional, high-performance teams to dysfunctional matrix organizations.


Mistakes happen. But team members can engage in very dysfunctional behavior after they have made mistakes—often because their organizations punish mistakes and cause damage trying to cover them up. Here’s what we learn from positive psychology about creating an environment where employees can be empowered to address their mistakes in an open, honest manner.

Mistakes happen. But too often, team members engage in very dysfunctional behavior after they have made mistakes. Even though mistakes are often the best learning experiences, many organizations suffer serious consequences not just because a mistake was made, but also often as a direct result of the attempt to save face and cover up after an employee has made a mistake. W. Edwards Deming wisely said that organizations need to drive out fear, and addressing mistakes in an open and honest manner is essential for any organization in today’s competitive business environment. Here’s what we learn from positive psychology about creating an environment where employees can be empowered to address their mistakes in a straightforward way.

Positive psychology teaches us that most people want to cultivate what is best within themselves and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. The trick is to guide your employees into exhibiting appropriate behaviors to accomplish these goals. Otherwise, you may find very dysfunctional behaviors, such as hiding mistakes, denial, and even blaming others, which obviously disrupt the workforce and can adversely impact the business in many ways. Many organizations have silo infrastructures and cultures that further detract from the organization’s goal of addressing mistakes and resolving problems in the most efficient way possible. DevOps principles and practices can help by encouraging teams to work in a collaborative, cross-functional way, which is essential in addressing mistakes. But highly effective teams really need to embrace much more efficient ways of dealing with challenges—including human error.

Positive psychology focuses on positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. This approach is a refreshing change from many schools of psychology, which focus more on analyzing the reasons for antisocial and other problematic personality types that often result in dysfunctional behavior. No doubt some folks do indeed have personality problems that predispose them to managing problems—such as handling their own mistakes—in ways that are not very constructive. But it is equally true that focusing on positive individual traits helps us to see and appreciate the strengths and virtues, such as personal integrity, self-knowledge, self-control, courage, and wisdom, that come from experience and being nourished in a positive environment.

The individual is very important in this context, but it is equally important to consider the organization as a holistic being. Understanding positive behaviors within the company itself entails the study of the strengths that empower team members to address challenges in an effective and creative way. Some examples of issues that should be discussed are social responsibility, civility, tolerance, diversity, work ethic, leadership, and honesty.

Obviously, the best leaders actually exhibit these behaviors themselves and lead by example, which brings us back to how specific individuals handle mistakes. When mistakes occur, does your organization foster a safe, open environment where people can feel that their best course of action is to admit what they did wrong? Do team members assume that their colleagues will drop what they are doing to help out in resolving any problems? Does the team avoid pointing fingers and the blame game to focus instead on problem resolution?

One manager mentioned that he did not focus so much on the unavoidable reality that mistakes will occur. Instead, he focused on encouraging his employees to acknowledge errors freely and then rated the entire team on its ability to work together and address problems productively, regardless of who may have been involved. Positive psychology gives us an effective framework for actually following through on Deming’s direction to “drive out fear.” The most successful organizations take mistakes and make them learning experiences, leading to employees who feel a renewed sense of loyalty and commitment to achieving excellence.

Mistakes happen. Your challenge is to ensure that rather than demoralizing or paralyzing people, these missteps instead empower your team to be more effective and successful!

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