From The Mistake Bank:
I learned a lot from reading Edward Hallowell’s new book, “Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People,” but I have significant disagreements with this section:
Recognition is so powerful because it answers a fundamental human need, the need to feel valued for what we do. Managers are in a unique position to offer—or withhold—such recognition, and with it, the feeling of being valued….
Yet many organizations spend more time focusing on errors and shortcomings than on giving recognition. They dissect failures and give “constructive” feedback that actually is often destructive. Steeped in many organizations’ collective consciousness is the idea that exposing mistakes leads to improved performance. The need to learn from mistakes is one of our most time-honored principles, drummed into us from early in our lives, through our educational years, and into our careers. But new research is showing otherwise, as does most people’s daily experience. Think about it. Do you usually learn from your mistakes? Or do you just feel embarrassed or upset and try to forget or cover up what happened? Do performance reviews that detail your shortcomings really help you? Or do they bring you down? Does being criticized in public improve your performance, or not? People do vary on these issues. Some people actually do improve after a public humiliation or a scorching performance review. But I challenge the absolute sanctity of the learn-from-your-mistakes credo. Certainly, when a person errs, and a manager notices it, there is a chance to learn. But there is also an excellent chance for emotions of shame and fear to short-circuit whatever higher learning process might otherwise develop in the brain. (pp 163-164)
It’s hard to argue with Hallowell’s precise language here. Who wouldn’t rather receive a pat on the back than a dressing down? And most companies are ham-handed with how they confront errors–as witch hunts to assign blame rather than exercises to expose flawed assumptions or systematic weaknesses.
But his underlying premise is wrong, in my view. Confronting and learning from mistakes is not the opposite of positive recognition. And they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a highly positive culture is required to give employees safety to reveal and correct mistakes quickly, rather than hide them. The research of Amy Edmondson asserts this very fact. She was perplexed by the findings that nurses in “safe” cultures committed more mistakes than nurses in less safe environments, until she discovered that psychological safety allowed the nurses to be more candid in revealing and discussing mistakes rather than hiding them.
Beyond that, isn’t it clear that not confronting mistakes, not probing weaknesses in the business, etc., is delusional and dangerous? So we shouldn’t be discussing whether to learn from mistakes, but how to do so effectively and without shaming our employees.
Perhaps Hallowell could reconsider his point that recognition is incompatible with learning from mistakes, and in fact come around to the idea that positive recognition, allowing employees to “Shine,” and the ability and culture to root out, learn from, and address errors and mistakes throughout the organization are all components of high-performing leadership.