From education to employment

Spelling out why mistakes matter: Should they be punished or welcomed?

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

When I was ten years old my teacher Mrs Castle made me write the word ‘beautiful’ two hundred times because I had spelt it – once only – as ‘beautifull’.

Why did she think that was a good idea?

Perhaps it was simply an impulse to educate. How best to enable Christopher to spell the word correctly? But two hundred times? Believe me, if you get to 17 without your mind wandering you’re doing well.

Four or five times is plenty. But better still, teach the general case. Why didn’t she ask me to copy down carefully five other words ending with the same suffix? That would at least have ensured I’d have to think.

So if she wasn’t really teaching, what was she doing? Punishing, I suspect.

That’s certainly how it felt. My mistake was a stupid one in Mrs Castle’s eyes so she’d make me feel as stupid as she could as a punishment.

Fortunately, not everyone sees the world Mrs Castle’s way.

For example, we can feel sure the following conversation never happened even though the laws of motion Sir Isaac Newton wrote down were not entirely correct:

‘Oi! Isaac, your equation’s wrong.’


‘You heard. It should be: Gνµ = aTνµ. Now write that out two hundred times. Correctly. And stop calling gravity a force. It’s not helpful.’

We don’t punish scientists because their theories are only partially correct. Where they don’t fit, the bits that must be mistaken are welcomed as the buds from which better understanding will eventually blossom. Immediately prior to its discovery one physicist even suggested it would be more interesting if the Higgs boson didn’t show up because it would mean we knew less than we thought and there must be a more fundamental theory to come.

Emotion or intelligence as a driving force?

So there’s a pretty clear choice where mistakes are concerned. You can punish them or you can welcome them. Which approach prevails in organisations? The answer depends on whether it’s emotion or intelligence that’s driving things.

In high-stress, high-risk environments it’s more likely that people will be punished for their mistakes. Anxiety elbows dispassionate thinking out the way and managers tend to react rather than respond. Although it may be natural to be angered by people’s errors, it’s not an intelligent response because in the end it’s not in a manager’s own best interests.

First, the best results are likely to come from people who are motivated and focused. Anxiety is infectious and the more someone is worrying about getting things wrong the less mindfulness they can bring to getting things right. If people know their manager’s response to mistakes will be calm, inquisitive and just, they’ll do a better job and if something does go wrong they won’t need their line-manager to blame them; they’ll blame themselves.

The supremely unintelligent thing about punishing errors is that it totally misses the point. It focuses on the person and not the mistake.

Just as in science, mistakes in organisations reveal important things. At their most superficial they may indicate that training is needed to improve performance. Why assume a mistake is a sign of deliberate sabotage? It’s far more probable that someone just needed better clarity, better understanding or better know-how to get things right. And whose is the responsibility for that?

Mistake or early warning signal?

Deeper than this, mistakes may provide clues to something much more fundamental than personal competence. It’s possible that someone is doing everything correctly but it’s the process or guiding strategy that’s wrong. This is gold-dust to an intelligent manager. What looks at first like a mistake is actually an early warning signal which, if attended to, may prevent consistent under-performance or even disaster down the line. It’s a cue for a management re-think.

But suppose mistakes are arising not from one individual’s work but generally across the piece. What then? Is taking a hard line going to help? An emotionally intelligent approach would be to find out why people don’t much care if mistakes happen. Once again, mistakes mean more work for managers and, in these circumstances, of the most fundamental kind.

It’s an enquiry into organisational culture, into what it is that’s driving people routinely to think and behave in ways that are damaging the organisation. Investigations of this kind lead to transformational results, transformation which almost always has to start at the top.

As in the world of theoretical physics, in organisations, acute managers will constantly be on the look-out for what’s not working, for where mistakes are happening and welcome them as pointers towards further development. And beneath this outlook is a deeper wisdom yet: understanding that regardless of who makes a mistake, responsibility for things going wrong is always, always, the manager’s.

That’s one universal law Mrs Castle might have done well to ponder. She and I might both have benefitted. Or should that be benefited?

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

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