Encouraging employees to own up to mistakes at work and how to minimise future problems

Everyone makes mistakes, and that’s good, says Brian Hughes.

Owning up to errors can be very difficult. Society largely treats errors unfavourably. Our first reaction after committing an error often is to find out if anyone else is aware of the error. If not, can it be hidden away so no one finds out?

This is particularly true if the error resulted in, or could have resulted in, a tragic outcome. Most of the time our errors do not amount to much. But sometimes they have significant negative impacts.

For instance, what happens when a nurse miscalculates a dosage by a factor of 10? Or when a pilot chooses the wrong action during an in-flight crisis? Or when an unprotected worker in a chemical plant rushes into a confined space to render aid to an unconscious colleague?

Error is part of being human. Although the majority of the time, they don’t amount to much, errors are also terrific learning opportunities. If they stay hidden, the opportunity is lost. Therefore, in order to develop a learning organisation, we need to create a culture where people aren’t afraid to own up to errors. But how?



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Errors are significant deviations from our pathway to goals. Most deviations are corrected before they become significant. But once the deviation crosses an upper or lower boundary it becomes a problem.

People are only one part of any system. Find and act on causes from a variety of different sources – not just the person.

Our response matters

Encouraging employees to own up to errors requires changing the culture – and this starts at the top. The following tips will help leaders respond in a way that, over time, will result in a shift to a learning culture.

Recognise and address common misconceptions:

  1. Errors are personal shortcomings: FALSE. Everyone commits errors. and no error on its own is sufficient to cause an undesirable outcome – it takes a system of causes (including the error) for that to occur.

  2. Errors are always bad: FALSE. Sometimes errors lead to positive, unforeseen outcomes. The best systems protect people from the downside of errors while maximising opportunities for upside potential.

  3. Punishment works: FALSE. The vast majority of people intend their actions to result in positive outcomes. Punishing them for committing an error is often not effective because it does nothing to address the underlying causes of the error.

No disciplinary action for honest mistakes

Punishment is largely ineffective. It causes people to hide their errors, eliminating the opportunity to learn. Develop a fair and just system for determining when discipline might be appropriate and make sure it occurs outside of any investigation process.

Position errors as learning opportunities

Ensure everyone recognises that we have an obligation to learn from our errors (even senior leaders).


Look beyond the person

Causes come from multiple sources. Consider the following statement: ‘People interact with hardware/software/systems via procedures and processes, and they do this in some sort of environment.’ People are only one part of any system. Find and act on causes from a variety of different sources – not just the person.

Use the ‘Cause + 2’ strategy

Often we stop investigating once an error is found; this is a mistake. The ‘Cause +2’ strategy tells us to look at least two levels of causes beyond the error. An error should not be the end of the investigation, but the beginning.

Fix the plan or the execution?

An undesirable outcome can be the result of an ineffective plan and/or ineffective execution. Identifying a gap in planning can lead to better plans in the future. Finding where someone had trouble executing can also lead to valuable improvements.

Act on the sources of errors

Dr. James Reason gave us a helpful model for characterising human performance modes that centre around experience levels.

  1. Knowledge-based errors: Given enough time, life will present us with unique situations for which we have limited knowledge. In these cases, we will be more likely to commit errors due to knowledge gaps.

  2. Rule-based errors: When we have some experience with a task, but it hasn’t yet become second-nature, we often apply a set of ‘if, then’ rules. For instance, if I saw a white wire and a black wire attached to a plug, then I can determine that the black wire is energised and the white wire is neutral. But if the wires were reversed, this rule would result in an error.

  3. Skill-based errors: Sometimes we just make mistakes while carrying out routine tasks. We know how to do the work, we have done it often, and we still mess it up. Skill-based errors are slips or lapses.

When investigating errors, consider these performance modes. This will provide you with a robust understanding of the error and help identify solutions that reduce the risk of recurrence.

Learn from those who do the work

Workers are effective risk managers. Consider that most of the time they achieve successful results, no matter what comes up. Learn from workers how they succeed, even in the face of risk. The risks of future errors exist right now, learn about them from those doing the work and eliminate them before they result in something bad.

Follow through

Be sure to use what you’ve learned to reduce risk and be sure to share lessons-learned with others. 

Celebrate success

Recognise top performers and share the credit with the team.


About the author

Brian Hughes is a co-founder of Sologic, LLC and currently serves in the role of Sr. Vice President overseeing content creation, sales, and marketing.



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