by Manuela Klungler & Johannes Griesinger
After giving a short overview of the topic “learning through work”, this article should inform about the origin of mistakes and their importance for learning processes. Besides, two empirical studies analyzing the treatment of mistakes by organizations are presented. In the end, readers can find a list of representatives and literature dealing with the approach of learning from mistakes.
1. Theoretical background: Learning through work
It is known that people can learn through engagement in everyday tasks and social interactions at work. These learning processes often occur informally and incidentally (informal / incidental learning). They arise by engaging in daily working tasks and activities which are not organised externally as learning environments. Thus it is possible to react quickly to changes in working tasks and processes (Billet, 2001).
According to this assumption, one can achieve competence by acquisition and modification of actual concepts, routines and scripts experiencing failure and success.
Two different kinds of failure situations may appear based on Piaget’s concepts of assimilation and accommodation (Piaget, 1968):
- situations requiring the modification of existing concepts
- situations requiring the establishment of new concepts
Mistakes play a very important role in these failure situations.
2. Learning from mistakes
1) Definition of mistakes / errors
A mistake is an everyday term; psychologists constituted three points that define mistakes (Frese & Zapf, 1991):
1) Mistakes only appear in case of goal-orientated behaviour.
2) A mistake implies a goal or sub-goal that was not achieved.
3) It is a mistake if it could have been avoided.
Errors can be seen as unintended deviations from plans, goals or adequate feedback processing. They can also be incorrect actions as a result of insufficient knowledge (Reason, 1990).
2) Mistakes as activators of learning processes
Making mistakes can have positive effects on the future. If one makes a mistake in a certain situation, one will remember about it in future. One learns about how something does not work. Thus the same kinds of mistakes will not be repeated. This knowledge is called “negative knowledge” (Oser et. al., 1999).
Learning from mistakes is a process containing two main steps:
1) reflective / reviewing process: analyzing reasons for the mistake and reflection of action alternatives
2) results of the first process as basis for future activities: feedback on individual and organizational level
(Bauer et al., 2008)
The most important action for learning from mistakes is reflection (Bauer et al., 2008).
It is not possible to enable learning from mistakes in all organizations. An organization has to be tolerant and use a constructive way of thinking, so that people can learn from their mistakes. They should not be blamed for their mistakes and hide them; they should just talk openly about their mistakes and share their experiences (Bauer et al., 2008).
3. Empirical studies
1) Van Dyck et al. carried out two studies concerning the different kinds of error culture in organizations. In their opinion, two kinds of error culture exist: Error management culture and error aversion culture. In organizations that adhere to error management culture people communicate about errors, share their error knowledge, help others in error situations and can quickly detect and handle errors. Though this is a positive approach, most organizations follow the other kind of culture which is error aversion culture. In related organizations, people are anxious when errors appear. Superiors tend to punish errors and blame people for them. Errors are seen as a reason of unwanted personality traits, insufficient knowledge and skills or low intelligence.
The authors posed the following research question: Is error aversion culture negatively related to firm performance and to error management culture? It is based on the hypothesis “Error management culture is positively related to firm performance”.
In the first study, they wanted to ask managers from different industry sectors. First part of the study was a survey containing a questionnaire. In this questionnaire, managers had to give answers about error management culture and error aversion culture. For comparing the firm performance of different companies, they had also to answer questions about firm goal achievement and survivability. The survey results supported the hypothesis. After answering the questionnaires some managers got interviewed about their experiences with errors. These interviews have shown that few organizations had any approach to errors and did not know how to deal with them. Besides, the managers didn’t ever seem to think about this topic, though they could give many examples of error situations. The examples only included errors that were related to quality and financial effects. The constructs error management culture and error aversion culture could also be found in some interview parts.
The second study was executed in Germany. 47 companies took part in the survey. They tested the same constructs as in the first study but they did not interview anyone. With this study, they wanted to test if the relation between error management culture and performance found in the first study would also appear in another cultural context. The results resembled the results of the first study which means that in another cultural context there is the same relation between error management culture and performance.
2) There are two studies of Bauer et al. (2008) that should analyze the organizational behaviour of treating mistakes.
Study 1 should find out what fostering or inhibiting conditions for learning from mistakes could be identified. Therefore, managers and working staff members had to answer a questionnaire containing the multidimensional construct of mistake orientation by Rybowiak et al. (1999) including eight dimensions: Mistake competence, estimation whether one can learn from mistakes, mistake risk taking, stress from mistakes, mistake anticipation, tendency of covering mistakes, readiness to communicate about mistakes and thinking about mistakes. Apart from that, they also wanted to compare the orientation towards learning from mistakes of managers and working staff members. The analysis of the questionnaires showed that there is a difference between the groups in the appraisal of mistakes: Managers tend to view learning from mistakes more positively than working staff members. But there was no significant difference in the strategies to learn from mistakes and in the emotions regarding the mistakes.
In study 2, common practices of handling mistakes were investigated focussing on support of learning from mistakes. The same people as in study 1 were questioned. The results showed that conversations and clarification in a constructive way follow a mistake. Furthermore, future prevention in the form of discussions, specification of new working procedures and establishment of new control mechanism is caused by mistakes. The subjects also had common understandings of what is a mistake.
4. Important representatives
- Stephen Billet
- Michael Frese
- Hans Gruber
- Christian Harteis
- Johannes Bauer
5. Personal statement
After dealing with the approach of learning from mistakes for quite some time we came to the conclusion that it is a very positive one. It is important to know that making mistakes is not only missing a goal or doing the wrong action in the first place but also a kind of teaching material one can learn a lot from. Unfortunately, it is not the way our community uses to think about mistakes. Mostly people are afraid of making mistakes and blame others for making them. It is not easy to find a good error treatment on organizational level because the negative thinking of mistakes is on peoples’ minds. But as empirical studies show there are beginnings of positive thinking of mistakes, especially on the part of superiors. At this point, development is needed. The positive thinking of mistakes has to be published by superiors; in doing so they have to be supported by pedagogues and psychologists for instance.
Bauer, J., Gruber, H. & Harteis, C. (2008). The culture of learning from mistakes: How employees handle mistakes in everyday work. International Journal of Educational Research, 47, 223 – 231.
Billet, S. (2001). Learning through work: Workplace affordances and personal engagement. Journal of Workplace Learning, 13, 209 – 214.
Frese, M. & Zapf, D. (1999). Fehlersystematik und Fehlerentstehung: Ein theoretischer Überblick. In M. Frese & D. Zapf. Fehler bei der Arbeit mit dem Computer. Ergebnisse von Beobachtungen und Befragungen im Bürobereich (pp. 14 -31). Bern: Huber.
Oser, F., Haschner, T. & Spychiger, M. (1999). Lernen aus Fehlern – Zur Psychologie des „negativen Wissens”. In W. Althof. Fehlerwelten – Vom Fehlermachen und Lernen auf Fehlern (pp. 11 – 43). Opladen: Leske & Budrich.
Piaget, J. (1968). Le structuralisme. Paris: Presses Univ. de France.
Reason, J. (1990). Human error. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rybowiak, V., Garst, H., Frese, M. & Batinic, B. (1999). Error Orientation Questionnaire (EOQ): reliability, validity, and different language equivalence. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 20, 527 – 547.
Van Dyck, C., Frese, M., Baer, M. & Sonnentag, S. (2005). Organizational Error Management Culture and Its Impact on Performance: A Two-Study Replication. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 90, No. 6, 1228 – 1240.
Zapf, D., Frese, M. & Brodbeck, F. C..Fehler und Fehlermanagement. In D. Frey, C. Graf Hoyos & D. Stahlberg (1999). Arbeits- und Organisationspsychologie (pp. 398 – 411). Weinheim: Beltz.