The six silver linings from making an error

Errors are not generally viewed in a positive light.

Debashis Sarkar
Posted: 07/05/2017

Errors are not generally viewed in a positive light. From childhood, we are taught to aim for perfection and avoid mistakes – schools can make a point of punishing errors; when we are older bosses can threaten to fire employees if they make an inadvertent mistake.

The resultant aversion to errors has helped create a culture where employees live under the threat of getting rebuked. As a result they don't experiment or go beyond their briefs – their creativity is hindered.

So, what qualifies as an error?

An error when an activity does not yield the desired outcome. This could happen due to many reasons, such as carelessness, misjudgement, lack of knowledge or following a wrong sequence of tasks.

Now, before I proceed, I am not advocating an “anything goes” culture. We need flawless organisational processes, defect-free customer experience, error-free employee engagement, strategic planning, and leadership. Clearly, there are critical areas where companies need to have zero-tolerance especially when it has a negative impact in areas such as human life, environment, organisational reputation, company profits, society, and customer data-privacy.

However, we should not create a culture of aversion of errors. When we make mistakes, we shouldn't necessarily try to brush them under the carpet or address them with punitive measures. Instead, we should take the opportunity to reflect and learn from errors, and use these lessons to enhance our future performance. Errors do have silver linings and hidden opportunities which need to be discovered – here are six of them.

1)   Errors open up one's mind

When you admit an error, you are starting to reflect – which is a powerful trigger for opening up your mind, and therefore learning and changing. As you change behaviour it opens up newer possibilities and many things which appeared impossible can now appear quite possible.


2) Reporting errors is first step to prevention

Reporting errors is the first step towards creating a prevention mindset in organisations. When employees are made aware of these errors and their root causes, they subsequently know what needs to be avoided. To get to the root causes, problem-solving teams work behind the scenes to find the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the errors in the first place. The mark of a company striving towards excellence is onethat is proactively looking for errors and working towards preventing them.

3)   Errors can lead to innovation

Do you know how potato chips were invented? It happened because a chef called George Crum made an error while frying a potato. One day, according to legend, a customer sent back a plate of fried potato, requesting it be made thinner and crisper. Crum went a little too far with that brief, but to his surprise, the customer wanted more – and thus began the journey of the potato chip. In fact a raft of items – including penicillin, pacemakers, chocolate-chip cookies and post-it notes – were created by mistake. If companies want to innovate they need to allow some scope for error; fostering a culture where employees are encouraged to innovate without fear of failure. Mistakes, after all, are nothing but experiences. As this article in the Scientific American points out: "skill must be culled from a string of mistakes. Lots of them."

4) Errors provide an opportunity to connect with customers

Errors can provide a great opportunity to bond with customers. If your washing machine breaks down and the company immediately responds and gets the product repaired, you will continue to do business with them. Or for example, you are holidaying in Goa and you complain about poor service to the hotel general manager. The GM not only ensures your concerns are addressed but also gives you an extra night's stay. Will you not come back to the hotel? Service failures/errors, while they should ideally not happen, are a great opportunity to bond with customers and make corrections to processes.


5) Errors prevent you from becoming arrogant

 Errors remind us that we are human beings and not infallible – regardless of our stature or past accomplishments. It really does not pay to be arrogant. Arrogance can lead to a person overlooking blind spots –which could be the cause of errors. Sometimes errors help to contain our egos which can run amok if not controlled, marring a person’s career. Errors can discourage haughtiness and help a person develop some humility.

6) Errors help us step out of our comfort zone

Many of us worry that making errors will jeopardise our status and standing. We fear that our errors will lessen others' regard for us. However, when we do make an error it gives us a reality check; and others are more forgiving than we give them credit for. It also helps get rid of the spotlight effect – the belief that we are being noticed more than we actually are. We tend to forget that people around us have better things to do than focus on what we’re doing. When we make an error – and we realise it’s not the end of the world – we are more likely to try our hand at new things in future and step outside of our comfort zone.

Debashis Sarkar
Posted: 07/05/2017

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