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Our big fear of getting it wrong at work: why blame culture does so much harm

A miscalculation or a mistake that triggers many others may cause frustration, fear, or slight unease, but it is still human. If we recognize this as a matter of course, why is it so difficult for the corporate world to accept these failures without penalizing the employee?

Fear of the consequences when we make a mistake at work can create workers who never take risks.
Fear of the consequences when we make a mistake at work can create workers who never take risks.LUNDBEK (LUNDBEK)

In mid-May, a screenshot of a notification from BBVA (a large Spanish bank) spread like wildfire on one of Twitter’s many microcosms. The message (“XSELL TEST. We don’t know how to send it to my cell phone. Jorge it is a test” (sic)) caused complaints among users of the social network. First, because it contained spelling mistakes; second, because of the assumption that those in charge of the bank’s application are not familiar with the system.

The company apologized on its own account, and other brands took advantage of the backlash to show their solidarity with the worker. The Wuolah notes platform was inspired by the blunder to write an email that used the mistake as a source of humor, while Uber Eats offered a 25% discount to Jorge, who was “to blame” for the error, and Milanuncios (an app for buying and selling secondhand goods) offered to help him with the purchase of a new cell phone.

On the internet, complaining is the order of the day; just like mistakes at work. No one is exempt from making them, not even on live television. Recently, host Andrés Hurtado fired one of the producers of the Peruvian show Sábado con Andrés for a typo in one of the scripts. Hurtado had read medio (medium) instead of miedo (fear), and in a possible fit of embarrassment invited the worker to leave his post stating, “Heads roll quickly here.”

We screw up in all kinds of tasks, from misspelled headlines to unintentional nerves in a crucial presentation; slips and falls in the hospitality industry or mistakes in law firms and opticians’ offices. Failure — an email sent at the wrong time, a miscalculation, or a mistake that triggers many others — may cause frustration, fear, or slight unease, but it is still human. But if it is natural, why is it so hard to deal with?

“We are afraid of making mistakes because they are associated with two of the fears that most affect human beings: the fear of what people will say, and the fear of not being enough,” explains Elena García Donoso, a specialist in fear management and leadership. The expert explains that, historically, companies have been managed based on “the culture of penalization” and not on the culture of learning, and she illustrates this with an example: “If a launch, a product, a sales strategy, or something similar goes wrong, a lot of time is spent looking for the culprit. How many of us have spent hours and hours reviewing emails to see who made a decision that didn’t work out so we can justify that it was someone else’s fault?

It is in this process of association (error equals guilt), failure is perceived as a threat, according to García Donoso. That’s why we are afraid of making mistakes. “Our problem today is that we manage today’s fears, which are more psychological and require rationalization tools, with yesterday’s mechanisms, which were generated to manage real, physical fears and involved only three behaviors: fight, flight, and paralysis,” the leadership specialist says.

With the result, she states, that the staff and managers, end up being afraid of making mistakes and believing that they cannot put a foot wrong. “You have a company totally rooted in its comfort zone. That will generate an aversion to change, rejection of innovation, and reluctance to evolve, which are inevitably essential in the uncertain and dynamic world we live in today,” says García Donoso.

The culture of error in the workplace

Last summer, four columnists for The New York Times dared to explore, the incorrect predictions they had made some time ago, in the informative series I was wrong. In the international community of entrepreneurs Mondragon Team Academy, it is customary to celebrate the Golden Mistake, an award for the biggest mistake made during the course. “The more people know about that error, the fewer people will make it again. Mistakes become a tool to make sure we learn and try not to make them again,” reflects Berta Lázaro, co-founder and head of the global ecosystem at TeamLabs.

Lázaro defines the company as a learning laboratory, “which assumes that some days you are up and some days you are down, that projects and relationships can break down and fail. Error becomes natural because it accelerates doing. And the more you do, the more you get wrong.” Some companies share a similar philosophy: they understand that mistakes are the starting point for learning. This methodology is known as “error culture,” defined by coach and consultant José Barroso as the training and awareness of the worker so that, far from hiding from mistakes, they can learn from them.

“That means finding out why it happened, what factors caused it or what happened in the sequence of activities that went wrong. The objective is clear: not to repeat it,” he says. Thus, companies use methods such as Japanese kaizen — the culture of excellence in manufacturing — and, according to Barroso, they work better by focusing on the solution and not on the error. “It’s often said, especially in American society, that if you haven’t failed several times, you don’t have enough experience to take a big project forward. If the error is analyzed and solutions are applied, failure need not follow. Companies, U.S. or otherwise, prefer people who bring solutions to problems, rather than people who bring a resume of failed projects,” he explains.

Living with mistakes

Elena García Donoso shares several keys to stop suffering with each new mistake. She urges us to embrace our mistakes and understand that it is impossible for everything to go as we wish — and even less so in such a changing world — understanding the response to a mistake as feedback and not as a threat, orienting the mistake towards the future — the question is “why did I make a mistake?” instead of getting bogged down on the “why” — implementing processes and spaces for areas for improvement, and setting every change in motion with more agility. It’s about understanding the mistake in the corporate culture without penalizing the employee who messed up. Although there are already companies that understand this as just another phase.

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