How to deal with errors at work

Messing up at work feels bad, especially when you’re in a job that requires high precision and accuracy. At the same time, making mistakes is a part of being human. In a brand new research paper that has just been published by Academy of Management Discoveries, Christoph Seckler, Sebastian Fischer and Kathrin Rosing study auditors in accounting firms and their error management orientation.

Managing errors with humility

An error management orientation is a positive attitude towards errors and the ability to cope with them. Previous research has mostly explained it with self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a sense of personal competence that allows you to effectively handle stressful situations. What Seckler, Fischer and Rosing now discovered is that humility also seems to play a big role.

Humility is the willingness to see yourself accurately, be appreciative of others and their feedback, and to be teachable. In this way, it is especially related to error learning, error communication and error risk taking. It hence allows you to openly speak about errors, learn from them and prevent them in the long run, as well as accept errors along the way while you work towards higher goals.

Two sides of humility

While humility thus boosts your error management orientation and improves how you deal with mistakes, in some situations it also leads you to experience more error strain, so to feel bad. One explanation for this might be that humble people are more likely to attribute errors to their own flaws, while cocky humans are more likely to think that external causes lead to the mistake.

Moreover, we need to take contextual factors, such as culture, into account. Certain national or organizational cultures might have an impact on how strongly humility influences your error management orientation. The researchers have not studied this explicitly, but are looking forward to future research that unpacks these factors.

What you can do to better deal with errors

We have learned so far that self-efficacy and humility improve the error management orientation of people. Organizations can help their employees to develop these skills in several ways. Firstly, with help of feedback: Seek feedback that is verifiable, predictable and controllable. This makes it less likely that the feedback will feel insensitive and make you or the other person get defensive. In this way, you increase mutual openness to new information or advice. If you are in a leadership position, you might institutionalize constructive feedback cycles in your organization.

Secondly, practice self-disclosure – especially as a leader. Ask yourself “what do other people know about me that I might not realize?” Invite a colleague to point these blind spots out to you on a regular basis. Moreover, practice voicing little concerns such as “I don’t know” or “I need help with this.” This will create a climate of psychological safety in your organization that makes dealing with errors easier for everybody.

Humility is not insecurity

Finally, let’s take a moment to differentiate humility from insecurity, since these often get confused in the media and in business. Being humble might look like not thinking very highly of yourself in a world that values being bold and “out there”, while in fact you are simply willing to view yourself correctly.

Especially for people in jobs that need excellent error management, humility should be cultivated as a central skill. These professions include firefighters, auditors, nurses, engineers and scholars. If these thoughts made you curious, you can read the full paper here.