Every team makes mistakes – but do your people tell you about them?
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Every team makes mistakes – but do your people tell you about them?

Which would you rather have? A team that frequently vents about mistakes made by their co-workers and others in the organization, or a team that doesn’t complain, sticks to their jobs, and quietly deals with errors without involving you?

You’d think the latter, wouldn’t you? But according to research from organizational behavior experts at Stanford University, you’d be far better off with the former.

The researchers — professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton — concluded that one sign of an effective team is “noisy and nosy” employees – people who feel free to point out problems, raise concerns and chime in on issues that, strictly speaking, are outside their own responsibilities.

Reporting the errors

The study looked at teams in nearly 200 hospitals, where effective leadership and communication can mean life or death. The researchers found that the units with the best leadership and best co-worker communication reported 10 times more mistakes than the worst performing units.

So were the top teams really making ten times as many mistakes? Of course not. When the researchers interviewed teams who reported very few errors, they found that workers were making lots and lots of mistakes. The mistakes just weren’t being reported.

When the researchers dug deeper, they discovered that these teams were run by managers who saw errors as failures. If mistakes were made, heads would roll. So employees underreported errors. So the problems didn’t get fixed and errors kept happening.

The irony is that these managers thought they had everything under control – when they actually had no idea what was really going on in their department.

To hide, or to address?

These findings raise a challenging question for you as a manager: Are your people telling you about problems – or sweeping them under the rug?

Every team has its share of problems and mistakes. The key difference is that top-performing teams unearth and address them.  The reason they do, the research found, is that the managers of these teams didn’t label the people who point out problems as troublemakers. Instead, they celebrated people who spoke up.

Of course there’s a difference between constructive and destructive criticism, and this research doesn’t suggest that you need to tolerate malcontents. But it does suggest that teams are more successful when people feel comfortable speaking up.

The Stanford study revealed something else surprising: The most talented employees often contributed to underreporting of problems. Not intentionally, of course. But top performers tend to excel at keeping the trains running and getting results. So when they see a problem, they just work around it and move on. What they often don’t do is bring the problem to the manager. So the root cause never gets addressed.

The right culture

As a manager, you may not be in a position to see everything that’s going on. So it’s up to you to create an environment where reporting mistakes is encouraged. As the research suggests, your best bet is to cultivate a “noisy, nosy” team – one made up of people who want to learn and grow, who question flawed procedures, and who speak up when they see room for improvement.

Here are some specific recommendations for how to create this kind of environment:

Celebrate mistakes and turn them into learning experiences

Let employees know that what separates high performers from low performers isn’t mistakes per se, but whether the person owns the mistake and learns from it.

Walk the talk

Admitting mistakes is scary and people won’t believe you merely because you say it’s okay. To remove the stigma of mistakes, you need to gain trust and credibility by routinely admitting your own mistakes. Explain what you learned, what changes you made, and why both you and the organization are better off.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Dealing With Mistakes: What High-Performing Teams Do Differently.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following scholarly article: Pfeffer, J. and Sutton, R. I. (2006). Hard facts, dangerous half-truths and total nonsense: Profiting from evidence-based management. Strategy and Leadership, 34(2): 35-42.


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