Tolerating mistakes – a false premise

The Chief Executive of UBS recently commented that tolerating mistakes would be a component of the bank’s ┬ácultural transformation. In short, the thinking behind this is that if you fear making errors in your work, you will not own up to them when they happen. It also prevents any valuable learning that can be taken from mistakes.

The Financial Times (FT) subsequently published an article criticising this policy, claiming the policy to be ‘mad’ and misunderstanding of human psychology in two respects – firstly, that there is no evidence that humans learn from failure, and secondly that people do not freeze if they are afraid to make mistakes. The article suggested that bankers should use brain surgery as a model for how to view error, referencing a recent (fascinating) book by Henry Marsh.

Failure is essential in order to attain excellence

I have a different understanding of psychology. If there is no evidence that humans learn from failure, why do we have an education system? How do professionals in elite professions such as international sport, or indeed brain surgery, achieve such high levels of performance? To believe they never failed suggests a naive understanding of how people achieve performance excellence. Having worked with RAF fighter-pilots, a central component of their work is the de-briefing culture – this is all about learning from failure.

Which is related to the issue of admitting error. Rather than being afraid of failure, people are afraid of the consequences of failure. If you feared punishment or that your career prospects would be harmed, you would be likely to cover up errors. At its best, the military creates an organisational culture which allows personnel to admit error. This facilitates learning. Henry Marsh highlights in his book on brain surgery that surgeons don’t always admit their errors. As such, it was perhaps unwise of the FT article to use this profession as an exemplar of how we should view human error. Indeed, as a letter to the FT remarked – aviation would be a preferable case study.

Errors are inevitable

Debating whether or not errors should be tolerated is based on a false premise – that errors can be eradicated. They can’t. That doesn’t mean people should not be held accountable, or high standards should not be demanded. But it does mean that Executives should focus on how their corporate cultures facilitate undesirable behaviours and attitudes. In this quest, they would do well to explore best practice from other high-risk professions.