The Social Power of Sharing Mistakes

Much of the research about learning and the brain could be distilled into a few simple words:

Mistakes are goodStruggle makes you smarter.

When it comes to applying this lesson to our lives, the problem is not with the science, but rather with our powerful natural aversion to mistakes and struggle.

Try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise, mistakes feel crummy; struggle feels like a verdict. Also, mistakes often carry a social price — they can cost us our job, our money, our pride. So we instinctively hide them.

The question is, how to fix that?  How do you overcome your natural mistake allergy?

One good answer: do it as a group.

Last week I heard of a nice strategy from the headmaster of a private high school in Utah. It’s called the Mistake Club, and it got started, as most of these things do, by accident.

Backstory: A new assistant headmaster (let’s call him Ernest) had been asked to speak to one of the school’s biggest donors about an upcoming project. For various reasons, the conversation didn’t go well; by the time it ended the rich donor was royally ticked off. Ernest’s first instinct, naturally, was to hide the mistake; to tell no one.

But for some strange reason Ernest didn’t. He did the opposite. He told the headmaster and staff the whole fiasco, describing each detail of the train-wreck conversation. Someone made a joke that they should start awarding points for each screwup.

The Mistake Club was born. Meetings were weekly; points were awarded on a 1-10 scale — the bigger the screwup, the more you “earned.” At the end of the year, a “prize” was awarded to the person who’d accumulated the most points.

The benefits, of course, go far beyond the pleasure of the joke. The Mistake Club established a culture of trust and communication. When someone shares the details of their mistake, the whole group learns vicariously. Social ties are strengthened. The meetings turn into coaching sessions; the organizational brain gets smarter.

Here are few other ways to do that:

  • Control expectations: I’ve seen sports teams and businesses sign contracts at the beginning of a season affirming that people will make mistakes, struggle will happen.
  • Deliver praise during the struggle: instead of praising someone at the moment of their achievement, praise them during their effort — since this is the behavior that really matters, and that you want to create again.
  • Encourage fallibility in leaders: it’s far easier for everyone to be transparent when leaders set the tone. For example, I recently heard of a hospital CEO who wanted to encourage hand-washing. She offered a reward of $20 to any worker who noticed her entering a sterile area without washing her hands first. Showing her own fallibility makes it easy for others to show theirs.
  • Legislate risk: Some companies build risk-taking requirements into their culture. For instance, Living Social, the online coupon company, encourages its people to take a business risk that scares them once a week.

The point is to find some way to create a safe social place where mistakes can be made and then used to accelerate learning — an inoculation for our natural mistake allergy.  As with any inoculation, a small dose can have a big effect.