Modern Management Challenges


Fallibility at Work

Human beings are fallible, prone to make mistakes and errors, in the shape of small and large slips, mishaps, and blunders. Leaders need to find ways of coping with fallibility in their organizations. Doing so is a key component in creating excellent collaborative results at work. In order to succeed in their efforts, organizations depend on a climate where it is normal to raise critical concerns about decisions and activities at work. Lowering the threshold for people to speak up when they sense that something is wrong, can be crucial for avoiding adverse outcomes, in the form of overspending and project collapse.

Narratives of failure can be a particularly powerful source of learning for leaders and organizations that are eager to cope with fallibility. In order to facilitate such learning, The Agency for Public Management and eGovernment in Norway holds an annual conference called Feiltrinn (Misstep). It provides a platform for sharing experiences about mistakes in the public sector. From the podium, leaders and practitioners share narratives about projects that have not gone according to plan. One such project was the National Archive’s attempt to create a digital depot for storing public documents and information. The E-archive project was supposed to counter digital dementia, or to make sure vital public information about health, taxation, and education was not lost and forgotten. After a long spell of development and testing, Inga Bolstad, the director general of the National Achive, decided to admit failure and terminate the project. The outlook for the project was not good, and rather than continue on the same path, Bolstad decided to stop to rethink and consider alternative options.

In order to stop the E-archive project, Bolstad and her organization had to overcome sunk-cost bias, the tendency people have to continue with their projects, even after they have come in possession of information that things are not going well. People tend to be loyal to their previous decisions, and to their previous selves who made those decisions. Another psychological effect that can stand in the way of realizing that it is time to terminate the project is the bystander effect. We tend to notice information that confirms our assumptions and beliefs, and overlook or disregard anything that gives us reasons to reconsider.

A philosophical take on fallibility is that in order to cope properly with it, we need to heed Socrates’ motto “Know yourself”. In this context, knowing yourself is to realize that you are a relational being, depending upon the collaborative efforts of others to succeed. Those efforts include interventions when you have made a mistake. Seniors and leaders in organizations are particularly vulnerable of not receiving sufficient feedback to correct their actions, since others may interpret what they say and do in the best possible light, given their authority. Even the best and most experienced people make mistakes, and need corrections from juniors. Creating an organizational climate where it is normal even for newcomers to voice doubt and misgivings about a given course of action, can be crucial to create miracles of collaboration in organizations.

Øyvind Kvalnse, author of Fallibility at Work, is Associate Professor at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo. His main research interests are in ethics, moral psychology, leadership, and excellence in organizations.

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