Doctor examining a patient's x-ray anyone can make a mistake

Anyone can make a mistake

I was reading something recently about workplaces and working relationships, and was intrigued by this finding.[1] Apparently, some research was done about how many mistakes were made in a hospital. The research compared places where the people were comfortable, got along in the team, and all worked well together, with other places where there were not good working relationships.

The researchers were surprised to find that more mistakes were made in the hospitals where everyone got on well, not the ones with poor working relationships. This wasn’t what they expected to see.

Being good researchers, they investigated further to see why this might be.

What's going on?

I don’t know if you can see the answer coming, but the results weren’t so counterintuitive after all. It’s not that the good workplaces made more mistakes. It’s that they owned up to them. And, more importantly, learned from them.

Those places where people didn’t work well together, no-one wanted to own up to the mistakes. That’s quite frightening in a hospital don’t you think? It means possibly no-one is acting to put them right. If the mistakes are critical, or fatal – well, instead of getting help, the busy, stressed, incompetent, whatever adjective applies, worker, was probably trying to put it right by themselves. Or not, if they were indeed incompetent. Now, I’m not suggesting all healthcare workers who make mistakes like this are incompetent, most won’t be, but there’s bound to be some. But whatever the reason for the mistake, not owning up to it is costing people’s health and even lives. The lack of shared learning – how do we ensure this doesn’t happen again, is compounding the problem.

Matthew Syed in his 2015 book, Black Box Thinking, puts this problem under the spotlight, together with our attitude to failure.  You can find out more about this book in my review, watch it here.

We all know the NHS is under extreme pressure, and allowing these kinds of workplace cultures to persist in such a crucial sector is madness in my opinion.

Are we ready to learn the lessons?

But there are lessons for us whatever our sector. Do we want people who take responsibility, own up to mistakes, work to rectify and learn for the future? Or are we happy to continue with teams who don’t get along, are afraid to step up and take responsibility, develop and grow?

How about your own workplace? Can people be honest and open about errors, or do they cover them up because of an environment of fear? What impact does that have on your organisation's effectiveness?  Start the discussion by leaving a comment below.



[1] Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read this to cite the source. A check of my recent reading material hasn’t enabled me to find it – but if I do, I’ll come back and cite.

Edit: I still haven't come across where I originally read this, but just recently came across an account of it in Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.  The research is by Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School. You can watch my review of Black Box Thinking here

​Reference

Amy Edmondson, 'Learning from Mistakes is Easier Said than Done: Group and Organisation Influences on the Detections and Correction of Human Error', Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 32, no 1 (1996), 5-28​​​

Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking (2015) John Murray, London

About the Author Lindsay Milner

Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.

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2 comments
Tori Ryan says 26th September 2016

A good article that highlights the dilemma of the blame culture. If you are lucky enough to work in a culture that allows you the freedom to admit mistakes, learn from them and grow in your professional development then this is great. If, however, you work in a culture that for every mistake you are made to answer by either discipline procedures, ridicule, blame for additional mistakes that weren’t your fault or various other sanctions it is hard to own up to even the most simple of mistakes. Does this lead us back to culture and learnt behaviour?

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Lindsay Milner says 30th September 2016

Thanks for your comments Tori. I think we are back to the same point in our other discussion, that culture in the main comes from the top. You are right that if staff are afraid of sanctions, then team members won’t speak up, so it is the responsibility of management to create the right environment for people to feel safe enough to admit mistakes. What happens if one individual speaks up and loses their job over it (and there are cases where this has happened within the NHS) is that most others become afraid to speak up, so perpetuating the culture of fear and keeping quiet.

Those leaders need to ask themselves if this is the kind of work environment they want. I truly believe that the vast majority of people will not want this, but many have got into a place where they don’t know how to change it.

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