Getting What We Paid For

Experience comes at a high cost, but we usually fail to learn all we should.

Corporate leaders must embrace an inconvenient truth:

Expecting people to own up to their mistakes is betting against human nature.

Too strong? Now, I’m not questioning people’s integrity – most people want to be honest. Our brains, however, are fiercely protective of our self-image… our belief that we are smart, competent professionals. When we make mistakes, our self-image is threatened and our brains leap into action by employing self-deception.

The depth of our self-deception is staggering as revealed in an excellent book, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).” While the title makes us smile, the content will not. We are absolutely abysmal at taking responsibility for, and learning from, our mistakes. Instead, our minds engage several defenses such as:

  • Denying anything has gone wrong. We will reinterpret information to appear that all is well. (“Everything is just fine.”)
  • Blaming external, unforeseeable factors. (“The proposal was sound – given the available information.”)
  • Our minds may go a step further and genuinely “misremember” our confidence in the proposal (“I always had misgivings about this.”)

In business, this is exceedingly costly. We repeat mistakes that cost us dearly the first time. We even double-down on a misguided commitment, throwing good money after bad, rather than acknowledge a mistake. After all, shutting down a project or selling-off a recent acquisition at a loss implies it was a mistake.

Dismantling Defenses

There is remedy IF we will recognize our deep vulnerabilities to self-deception. Here are effective steps to overcome our brain’s instinctive defenses and salvage valuable lessons from our mistakes:

  • Establish objective performance metrics wherever possible. Have independent referees measure and interpret actual results.
  • Define what comprises a “good” proposal. Evaluate all original proposals against that standard. Yes, business is risk and much is outside of our control. But too often shoddy work and shortcuts expose us to “unforced errors.”
  • Document everyone’s positions at the time of the proposal. Record everyone’s support and reservations to head off misremembering.

Rewarding Candor

Perhaps the most powerful step is creating an organizational culture that values and rewards admissions of mistakes. Of course, this is also the most challenging step.

Our American business is mistake-phobic. Deep down, we think mistakes are evidence of incompetence and stupidity. Leaders need to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to learning from mistakes versus applying consequences to mistakes.

It doesn’t come easily, but when successful we finally gain the full benefit of our experience!

“If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us, we’d all be millionaires.” Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby)

© Dave Wittenberg