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The positive culture of mistakes: learning from mistakes & #8211; just a myth?

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Some things only happen once in a lifetime. A child who touches the hot stove with the palm of his hand will probably not make this mistake again. Literally the misjudgment burns in and the child learns not to trust the stove. 

So you learn from mistakes & #8211; Completely logical in everyday psychology and even a well-known saying. Nevertheless, the situation with the hot hob cannot really be transferred to the work context. What is the difference between a burn and a manager's negative feedback? And why does science say that learning from mistakes is not that easy?

Why introduce a positive error culture?

It actually seems very simple: We react more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive ones. They enable us to process information more deeply, which means that the information is memorized more quickly, remains stored longer and can be accessed more easily (Bless & Fiedler, 2006; Puig & Szpunar, 2017). This has to do with errors in that they mostly cause negative feedback, which is generally a negative stimulus. 

Let's stick to the example with the hob. The child touches the hot plate and feels pain. This pain is negative feedback and triggers information processing. If the child sees the hob again a few days later, the information that the hob may be hot is called up.

Now, however, the pain of the burn and the negative criticism of a manager differ. This was recently investigated by two women scientists from the United States. They looked at the conditions under which errors actually lead to learning and found something astonishing: If a negative error is followed by negative feedback, the probability that we will learn from this error is very low (Eskreis-Winkler & Fishbach, 2019). However, if positive feedback follows correct answers, we learn better. In concrete terms, this means that positive criticism regarding one's own work means more than negative criticism. 

Why do we react to negative criticism with reactance, i.e. with resistance and defiance? This is because negative criticism is perceived as a threat to self-worth and represents an attack on the ego. The resulting thoughts of failure ultimately lead to the feeling that one's own goals are unattainable. 

And what does goal theory say about the motivation to achieve unattainable goals? Exactly & #8211; she's not there. For dealing with mistakes in the team, these findings clearly mean that criticism must not endanger self-worth! So the basic mood should be from one Atmosphere of psychological security be shaped so that a positive culture of error arises and criticism does not hit a negative breeding ground.

How we implement a positive error culture

No feedback is definitely not a solution. So how do we make sure that feedback is used constructively and that the general mood in the team promotes positive feedback? If you are interested in the answers, please read our article on error culture, in which we describe detailed steps for developing a positive error culture. The short version is: The handling of errors has to be changed so that team members dare to make mistakes transparent right from the start. 

Among other things, errors in retros can be addressed. If you can get the team members to talk openly about their mistakes, the rest of the team can actually learn from them. So learning from mistakes is possible! 

And here's the highlight: If another person receives feedback about a mistake made and we are aware of it, this does not represent a risk to our self-esteem (Eskreis-Winkler & Fishbach, 2019). We process the feedback and take it with us for our own work. In a perfect error culture, the team talks openly about challenges and helps each other to deal with these challenges.

A positive culture of error in your retrospectives? & #8211; This is possible with the retro tool from Echometer!

First measures towards a positive error culture 

The decisive factor in whether we learn from mistakes is how we deal with them. If we can make sure that mistakes do not directly encounter negative criticism that attacks our ego, we can learn from experience. 

For that to work, of course we have to do it first set meaningful goals to have. Our environment must also be designed so that the implementation and dynamic adjustment of these goals is possible and promoted by the team members. Just try that Retro tool from Echometer and see for yourself what the introduction of a positive error culture can achieve!

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