How organisations learn from failures

Learning from failures is very important for leaders and managers to increase their capacity to cope with crisis events, by learning from the experience of previous crises. Just as well for decreasing subsequent accident and incident rates for decreasing an organization’s risk of failure, for enhancing organizational reliability, and for achieving various organizational outcomes such as service quality, adaptability, innovativeness, and productivity.

Didn’t Einstein state that Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results? (you will find the answer at the end of this article).

But how can organisations and teams learn from failures? What are the conditions to make it work best?

-reading time: 4 minutes-

How organisations learn from failures

Learning from failures is very important for leaders and managers to increase their capacity to cope with crisis events, by learning from the experience of previous crises. Just as well for decreasing subsequent accident and incident rates for decreasing an organization’s risk of failure, for enhancing organizational reliability, and for achieving various organizational outcomes such as service quality, adaptability, innovativeness, and productivity.

Didn’t Einstein state that Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results? (you will find the answer at the end of this article).

But how can organisations and teams learn from failures? What are the conditions to make it work best?

High quality relationships create a positive social context at work

High-quality relationships are demonstrated by respectful interaction and respectful engagement. These values increase information processing capacity by connecting employees who play distinct yet interdependent roles in the organization. When employees who work together have competing goals, a lack of understanding of each other’s roles and a lack of respect for each other’s roles, they are more likely to blame each other for failures.

On the other hand, when employees who work together:

  • Have shared goals that surpass their specific roles
  • Are connected by shared knowledge of the overall work process and how their roles interrelate
  • Are connected by mutual respect that enables them to carry out their roles in an atmosphere of openness

employees are less likely to blame each other for failures. They are more likely to experience the psychological safety needed to embrace failure as an opportunity for learning.

High-quality relationships create a positive social context in which people feel safe to perform and act. People act in positive ways toward each other and are enabled to act by shared and communal structures, cultures, and processes

Psychological safety at work adds value to trust

Psychological safety refers to an employee’s beliefs about how colleagues will respond when he or she would ask questions, seek feedback, report an error, or come up with a new idea. The employee assesses the interpersonal consequences of the above behaviors, namely if I would speak up or report a mistake will others in the organizations hurt or act in a way that embarrasses me.

Both trust and psychological safety involve perceptions of vulnerability and making choices to minimize negative consequences in a relationship. However, there are three distinctions between these concepts:

  • Trust focuses on others, placing trust in someone else; psychological safety is about the self, how others will provide you with compassion.
  • Trust is a mid/long-term construct, whereas psychological safety concerns relatively short-term interpersonal consequences that an employee expects from engaging in a specific action.
  • Trust relates to perceived organizational support or general beliefs concerning the extent to which the organization values and appreciates the employee’s contribution and cares about their well-being; psychological safety is about feeling comfortable to take interpersonal risks.

Psychological safety refers to a belief that an employee is able to express his or her self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.

Learning from failures works best with psychological safety at work

According to the study of Carmeli & Gittell (2008), the impact of high quality relationships and psychological safety at work on learning from failures, is significant. Their study shows that psychological safety mediates the link between high-quality relationships and learning from failures in organizations.

Learning from failures in an organisation means that employees not only solve problems so the task is successfully completed, but also work to address the problem’s underlying causes. This relates to double-loop learning, rather than single-loop learning, which occurs mostly in organisations. Single-loop learning ignores the real cause of the problem; the objective is to fix problems within the present organizational structure so that the system will function better, and does not attempt to alter the structure of the system.

Learning from failures in an organisation, needs:

  • Critical thinking; self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking, in order to apply rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use
  • Encountering problems; face problems, especially unexpectedly
  • Preoccupation with failures; the need for continuous attention to anomalies that could be symptoms of larger problems in a system
  • Error management training; active exploration as well as explicit encouragement for employees to make errors during training and to learn from them
Leadership consequences

Leaders should always find new ways to improve organisational processes and outcomes. Learning from failures is essential here and in particular double-loop learning, which relates to a mindset change. Building trust is key to create a constructive and respectful atmosphere, the foundation for coaching.

Trust is found in high-quality relationships, which are characterised by shared goals and shared knowledge among team members. This will enhance the knowledge base of the team and organisation, increases the reliability of team performance, and promotes creativity and innovation. Lead by example is essential:

  • Content: the leader’s values and priorities
  • Influence: the content impact on people’s perception and behavior
  • Reciprocity: the impact and influence on the direct reports’ and colleagues’ leadership styles

In addition to trust, facilitating psychological safety is very important to create the environment for learning from failures. Leaders should make sure that team members can make mistakes, that they will not feel that they embarrass themselves, and that team members do not need to fear that their reputation of job is on the line.

When learning from failures, leaders should promote critical thinking, encountering problems, preoccupation with failures, and implement error management training. But also apply double-loop learning in order to continuously improve the system and processes, and avoid that the organisation becomes insane by making the same mistake over and over again (answer: apparently it was not Einstein, who said it… – speaking of learning).

If you want to read more, I can recommend High‐quality relationships, psychological safety, and learning from failures in work organizations by Abraham Carmeli & Jody Hoffer Gittell, which is the base for this article.