How to blunder your way to the top

It is usually assumed that in business's increasingly cut-throat environment, just about any mistake is career-threatening.

But according to Peter Honey, a behavioural psychologist, companies often prefer to employ those who have made mistakes at some point in their careers. "People who have made mistakes and, more important, learned from them, tend to be more successful leaders," he told the Institute of Personnel and Development's human resource development conference last week.

He pointed out that two leaders revered by management thinkers - Bill Gore, founder of the company producing Gore-Tex fabric, and Bill Gates of Microsoft - apparently believe that mistakes are a valuable learning process and show a willingness to question, challenge, experiment and innovate.

In contrast, says Mr Honey, an intolerant attitude towards mistakes can lead to a "blame culture" that smothers creativity. "The fear of making mistakes, or of the consequences of being discovered, can be so great that individuals and organisations try to avoid making mistakes of any kind," he adds

Fear of mistakes "can result in habits that stifle innovation; an acceptance of the status quo; intolerance of experiment; suppression of challenges; and promotion of individual interests at the expense of the enterprise".

However, he emphasises the importance of differentiating between "below- the-line and above-the-line mistakes". Clearly, mistakes such as amputating the wrong leg, or putting a whole company at risk through a poorly thought- out action, are unacceptable. But, he adds, this does not mean that mistakes where the correct approach led to a disappointing outcome, should be discouraged. "Too many employers confuse the two types, and punish them equally."

Mr Honey and Michael Pearn, a partner with the occupational psychologists Pearn Kandola, have put together a 10-point plan for making mistakes more productive. Among their suggestions are developing more positive feelings about mistakes, being ready to experiment, building hypothetical models, testing assumptions and attitudes and providing support when mistakes occur.

They also stress the difference between adaptive learning - conformist procedures whereby individuals attempt to understand, accept and adapt the framework within which they operate - and generative learning, which involves a more experimental approach, under which people challenge and move into a new frameworkn

Roger Trapp

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