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Each quarter I post a review of a leadership/motivational book I recommend to colleagues and friends. Some may be old favorites, others are hot off the press. I am always open to suggestions for books to review. If you have a favorite you'd like to share with others, please contact me.
Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong
by Alina Tugend
My mom once told me, “Give a book 50 pages. If it hasn't caught your interest by then, don't waste your time.” I am SO GLAD I gave Better by Mistake by Alina Tugend, the requisite pages.
Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong is an eye opener…if you can get past the rather dry opening pages. Yes, I wanted to know what she defined as “mistakes” and all that, but it wasn't until she began discussing the difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence that she had me (around page 30). And then she really had me!
For those of us who deny perfectionism, stating instead that we “strive for excellence”, here is the difference: “Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing and developing confidence. Perfection involves feeling bad about a 98 (out of 100) and always finding mistakes no matter how well you are doing.” Sound familiar, anyone?
Better by Mistake takes on the tough topics of how we make errors, how we perceive errors (made by ourselves or others), the mixed messages society sends about making mistakes and why mistakes are essential to our learning and achievement. The 250 pages are a compilation of research results (unexpectedly interesting) and interviews, written with humor and anecdotes. Some of the research results are truly startling.
For example…did you know that studies show children praised for being “smart”, become more risk-adverse than children who are praised for “good effort” or “hard work”? “Good effort” kids are more likely to look for new options/alternatives before settling on a course of action. Research shows those children believe success in a task is achievable through effort (which is malleable) and includes mistakes. “Smart” kids see smarts as something you either have or don't have and so stick more often to the tried and true rather than risk being seen as “not smart”.
Tugend breaks her 250-page journey into chapters on children, the workplace, lessons learned on mistake prevention in the fields of medicine and aviation, gender, and cultural differences. She closes the book with a chapter on what makes an apology effective. For readers who only believe research results when there are citations and endnotes, there are those as well.
In her chapter on the workplace, Tugend looks not at things out of our control, but at things that we can change. She examines corporate cultures where mistakes are feared and avoided and failed CEOs leave with multi-million dollar parachutes. In such cultures, talent and degrees from prestigious universities are revered over almost everything else. In such an environment, people must act as if they are infallible which leads to an inability to admit or correct their deficiencies. People are seduced into believing they cannot lose. Enron and Wall Street financial institutions are examples of these environments.
No book on making errors can ignore the two fields where making a mistake can cost lives: aviation and medicine. The author devotes a long chapter to the field of medicine. She claims her research uncovers a profession which is decades behind aviation when it comes to having procedures and a culture in place to prevent mistakes.
Most medical mistakes, say a number of studies, are not result of individual reckless action, yet they are often treated as such.
“Blaming an individual is more emotionally satisfying than targeting an institution, but by blaming an individual there is often no further action taken, no analysis of mishaps and thus no uncovering systemic failures, of how and why defenses against mistakes failed,” says the oft-quoted psychology professor and error expert James Reason. If accidents are seen as unique events, there is little reason to rock the boat for change.
While the medical community does face different challenges, what has been learned in other fields about managing and responding to mistakes can be applied. For example, mistakes can't be addressed if:
quantifiable measurements aren't taken to see if the problem is widespread,
colleagues don't trust their bosses or each other and so sweep errors under the rug
the approach to mistakes is humiliation and punishment
there is little if any feedback
The chapter is rich with examples of how perfectionism, fear, and hierarchy held (and may still hold) the medical profession back from addressing errors. One surprise was that there was little difference in the medical culture of Canada where the threat of litigation is lower and healthcare is nationalized. The myth of perfectionism and deep-seated assumptions continue to make progress slow.
Are there gender differences when it comes to owning up to mistakes? While there are many studies looking at gender differences on a multitude of topics, there appears to be little research focusing on how the genders react to mistakes, especially in the workplace. What there is supports previous findings: women tend to internalize and personalize their mistakes, men externalize their feelings, directing them outward as anger toward others. Men also move on from mistakes more quickly. Being less affected by the mistake, they are more willing to continue taking risks after making an error.
In looking at how various cultures view mistakes, aviation and education were revealed as fertile fields of research. One interesting study looked at how teachers are viewed when students make mistakes. In the U.S. teachers were blamed when their students messed up. In an Italian study, teachers were seen as having the responsibility to criticize and correct students, sometimes harshly, so that the students learned lessons from their mistakes. In yet another culture, mistakes are looked on favorably because they indicate there was more learning to be done.
The final chapter of Better By Mistake examines apologies. The study of apology is an evolving field. Is saying “I'm sorry” an admission of guilt? Is it a sign of weakness? Is explaining why a mistake was made just making excuses? Your answers to these questions have an impact on how you apologize or even if you apologize. Tugend spends many pages looking at the apologies offered by politicians: Reagan, Bush, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Clinton and Obama. Which politicians' apologies include all three elements of a sincere apology: acknowledgment of fault, regret, and accountability?
All in all, Better By Mistake is an interesting read. Making mistakes is one of those traits we each share with those who live in our world and those who came before us. Plain or fancy, as some would say, we all make mistakes. By forgiving ourselves and others' errors, we can expose perfection as the myth it is and we can learn valuable lessons to move us forward in life.