Posted by: manuklungler | April 1, 2009

Learning from mistakes

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.

6. Literature

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.



  1. Good article, it was easy to understand your points and follow your line of thought. Also it was good that you defined the terms you used.

    One point of your article was that organization should make it possible for people to 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” – We talked about this at the seminar and also discussed the problems with this for example in the medical area. While the discussion made it seem as if it was possible to talk about this in Finland (so maybe they have error management) in Germany mistakes in hospitals etc. are seen as something you should learn from in the involved institution but at the same time prevent others from finding out about it, thus making it impossible for people from other institutions to learn from this mistakes. This error aversion culture not only makes it difficult to learn from mistakes other people made but also to learn from one’s own mistakes. Concealing them gets much more important in order not to loose one’s job or being punished by superiors and learning how to avoid mistakes in the first place can easily be forgotten.
    I see this as a problem, especially when you point out that few organizations in the first van Dyck study had an approach to errors and people did not know how to deal with them or even did not think this topic was worth thinking about.
    Your article is therefore important in raising attention to this topic and it is well done.

    It would be interesting to see if there are cultural differences in admitting or hiding mistakes, do you know something about that?

  2. Interesting topic. I’m especially interested in the way how people recognise or do not recgnise a mistake. How and when people make a wrong decision… what is a relationship between self-confidence and mistakes…

    Holst’s question about differences in dealing with mistakes according to the cultural difference is interesting, too.

    Japanese old proverb says that failure teachers success. Because failure mekes people actively and consciously think about their behaviour, by reflecting upon their process and thinking for better solutions.

    In my personal opinion (so cannot be generalised!), Japanese are persistent with ‘mistakes’ for some reasons. First, we think that making mistakes is something shameful. In Japanese culture, there is a notion that you are always judged or looked by others, although nobody actualy do so. Second, in a business context, as you may know, we tend to think that ‘customers are god’; therefore, every single mistakes are crucial but at the same time therefore we try to put much effort in improving service or products for the customers in order for them to satisfied and comfortable. Third, Japanese culture may put strong emphasis on corrective responsibility; therefore they put much effort not to make mistakes. For example, not only a person who made an mistake is blamed but also the other colleageus are also blamed.
    Those aspects above may generate an error management culture, but as we witness that Japanese economic has kept folling down, so there should be something wrong with error management styles in Japan.

    Whether or not the companies take error management or aversion culture may depend the openess of the communities in their companies. If the management style is based on ‘squashed’ pyramid style rather than sharp one, then it would be easier to creat a safe atomoshper where everyone can speak about mistakes and act on them using multi-disciprinary agent work. This would be effective and good for improving quality. However, the drawback woud be that it takes more time than error aversion culture.

    From psychological view, the reason why the error management culture is positively relate to firm achievement would be said that from Japanese perspective the correcive responsibility gives much more psychological effect on individuals than mere punishment on individual from someone who is in authority does. In an extreme case, in my opinion, for example, I would prefer being fired due to my mistake to staying a company and working with others. Because i feel more guilty when I bother others than bother only myself. So pressure is higher when in error management culture than in error aversion culture, at least for me.

    Anyway, like Holst said, it is interesting topic with broad possiblities to investigate this topic.

  3. Hello Yoko!
    As I am a Sociologist in the making, I would say that it is not only Psychology involved.

    You said something about “In Japanese culture, there is a notion that you are always judged or looked by others, although nobody actualy do so.“.

    To me, this seems like a cultural influence – people do judge others and they do judge themselves, they just don’t talk about it.

    I would say that it is quite similar in Germany. We have a culture of intransparency. I do not know where this comes from, but I am quite sure that you can see this in many aspects of workplace and even political culture – people do not give away their secrets.

    Maybe Japanese and German society have that in common – people are much more aware of the roles they have and try to act especially convincing. And they seem to do so by not indicating any weakness.

  4. I think that also here in Finland making mistakes is a shame. On a lecture in school of economics we were told that in USA people are not judged losers if they fail in running their enterprises. It’s very different here in Finland. It’s not that easy for us to think that failing has taught a lot – for example to avoid a certain mistake.

  5. First of all, good article. It’s a very interesing topic, also in my future profesion, teacher.
    In some of the process of learning something, there’s a lot of tryings, and a lot of mistakes before we get able to do something. This, for exemple in malabars.

    When I read your article, I was thinking about one personal experience.
    In the summercamp, with kids from 14 to 16 years old, we wanted to climb a easy mountain. I made the way for found some posibles difficulties in the road, and also for the timing.
    In the meeting previous to the day of the excursion, all my workmates decided to take another way, because it seems more easy.
    The excursion began and all was rigth until a fast storm come, and started to rain and was a very thick fog. Some of my workmates wanted to go down, but I thought was dangerous, and I decided to follow the way. Because of the fog, the group split in two halfs. One of this, went down the mountain, but the rescue services must help them. But the other group, because of the fog, couldn’t follow the correct way, and they get lose. Fortunately, the rescue services could found us before the nigth, and all ended for the kids like a great adventure.

    But in the feedback after this history, some of my workmates started to send the guility only to me, because I planificated the excursion. And the discusion gets more of 4 hours, without taking any solution. Only the boss explain the history to some experts in trekking for be able to find the posible errors of this matter.

    It’s no easy to recognize the owns mistake, especially when there’re big, and sometimes, we need the help of an expert

  6. Thank you for this very interesting article! Comments and discussion show that also cultures are different. Like Saija said mistakes in Finland are something to shame for many people.

    Maybe mistakes could also open a new window to find out different questions and better solutions. I agree with Manuela Klungler & Johannes Griesinger “that making mistakes is a kind of teaching material one can learn a lot from”. Moreover, not just the one but also other people after processing a certain mistake.

  7. It is a really good article, which is easy to understand.
    Especially I liked your personal statement, in which you also say that every person have to learn how to handle a mistake.
    I am going to be an Elementary school teacher and I once heard a very good statement, how to explain it to a small child: “You can see a mistake as a friend. Because he wants to learn and tell you something. But you have to work and deal with him.” This is what you described as REFLECTION in Chapter 2. (Mistakes as activators of learning)

  8. First of all, I want to thank you for your article.
    It was very interessting for me to read it. This topic is really important if you want to become a teacher – like I do.

    As you said, it is really important to make the children understanding that a mistake has nothing bad. The children shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes, they should learn from them.
    And also the teacher should not see a mistake as something bad. He or she should accept this mistake and she/he should consider it as a help. Because of the mistakes, the teacher knows what the child is able to manage and where he or she still need more practises.

  9. Interesting topic and it makes you think about cultural differences in admitting mistakes or hiding.

    As well as in Finland or in Japan, Spanish people usually think that making a mistake is something shameful but I hope that this assumption will change.
    From my point of view, an error gives us much more than we could give the fact of never failure. It is really difficult, if not impossible, to make progress without making mistakes; they teach us how to do things correctly. We strive to see mistakes as something extremely negative and say “Sorry, I made a mistake”.

    Equally important is to accept and see mistakes. Errors are usually something we have done and that has no solution, so we have to take a positive attitude and look forward, focusing on all the positive things we get.

    I am also wondering about what is the relationship between self-confidence and mistakes…

    I have also found a website very interesting, if you want to grow yourself just clik here:

  10. Learning from mistakes is something that I have heard many times but I have never read about it. Thus, I would like to thank you for the article it was really interesting, especially your personal statement.
    I think that you do not have to look at your mistakes as failures, you should learn from them, correct them and in order to do that the most important is the reflection. Be consistent in what you are doing is the key to success. Nevertheless, it is not easy sometimes.
    In the article you remark that it is not possible to enable learning from mistakes in all organizations. I agree, there are different kinds of organizations. On the one hand there some institutions that allow experimentation and innovation and on the other hand there others that values tradition and obedience. Failures are seen very different from one to another, in the first case you can learn from your mistakes because you have the chance to improve yourself and no one is going to punish you but in the second case, they avoide failure at all cost.

  11. I agree with María, in Spain making mistakes is a shame as in other countries. However, I think
    that in Finland, focusing in school context, I have noticed that errors are not seen as something
    bad. Teachers do not try to get the right answer for questions, they want to ask children for
    the reason and there is no problem if what they are saying is an error or not. Perhaps, it is not
    the same if we move to business.

    Anyway, I really liked the article, it was easy to understand.

    I also liked what Michaela said about how to explain why mistakes are good to a child because
    I am going to be an elementary teacher and probably it will be useful. We have the challenge
    to teach children how to learn about their errors, help them to “get up when they fall down”
    and not be blamed for their mistakes and hide them.

  12. In my opinion, to make mistakes is something really common, it is in nature of human being so learn from them and take this action in a positive attitude is the best thing to improve and progress, not only in our continuum learning, but also in all aspects in our lives.

    Also it is true that society, in general, tend to judge mistakes negatively, so we feel ashamed or afraid of being blamed if we commit an error. That really harm our way to face new tasks and challenges, because we are taking care of not falling down and trying to make everything according to how people will judge our work.

    I think that trying to make a positive balance of things we do not make right and try to take the good in this, avoiding to relapse in the mistake again and learning how to achieve our goal if not in the way we tried first and made us make a mistake, then searching different approaches that helps us to improve in whatever we propose. That is the attitude we should awareness because all in all, we are all human beings, no perfect. We are exposed to make errors anytime and that should encourage us to get any goal we want to go for.

  13. As human beings we commonly make mistakes. I think that people easily judge others behaviours. So we are always taking care of doing things in a proper way not to be judge. In my case, for example I really care about what others think about my. And I realise that it should not be in that way, but when you know that your mistakes, and even your behaviours, are going to be judge, you try not to do them.

    That’s why usually we are afraid of making mistakes. We relate mistakes also to punishments or scolding’s. And that’s why we do not want to do mistakes. In that way, we avoid doing them without taking into account that we can also learn about them. From my point of view, we should change the way of thinking and see the mistakes as a positive thing from which we can learn. So having a positive thinking of mistakes is important when we are teaching. We must see the mistakes as a way of improving our knowledge and we must take advantage of them to create new knowledge too.

  14. I think it is important to know that mistakes are positive. Because as it is said in the text, it is not only missing a goal or doing something wrong. We can also learn.

    We all make mistakes and we all should be aware of it. The difference is how we look at the mistake.There are people who learn from it, people who really take action to correct it…and people who don’t. So, the attitude towards the mistakes we make will be decisive and it will make a big difference in our life. The best option is to keep a positive outlook and, as teachers, take advantage of it and use the mistakes as a pedagogical strategy or teaching material to facilitate our students’ learing process.

  15. Mistakes can occur when it is a lack of knowledge. But we can not forget that mistakes can also have positive effects on us. When we make any mistake, we remember it in the future, so we do not usually repeat that error. And that’s because we have learnt something. So when we are learning to do something we also learn what not to do. Although it is called negative knowledge, it is a kind of knowledge.

    We have to have a positive attitude with mistakes because we always learn from them.

  16. I am extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your weblog.
    Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Either way keep
    up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a nice blog like this one these days.

  17. I quite like reading a post that can make people think. Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

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