How To Turn “Work Issues” Into Learning Opportunities

August 21, 2013

In business we are often quick to criticise other people when things go wrong or mistakes occur. We have been taught to believe that attack is the best form of defence and the importance of “getting in first”. This behaviour is a natural and automatic response mechanism to deflect blame from ourselves.

There is an old saying that goes “When pointing the finger of blame, remember that three of your own fingers will be pointing back at you!” I love this saying and have a poster of it (including a picture of a Lord Sugar style ‘pointy finger’ made famous by his show The Apprentice) on the wall of my office.

The message of this saying is very clear in that you must examine your own part in what has happened before starting to accuse others. For example, in my experience 100% of errors are caused by just one thing…miscommunication! As such, what could we have done better to improve our communication with the other party and avoided the error in the first place.

As a manager it is vital that you display appropriate behaviours yourself when dealing with people ‘post error’. If you are a finger pointer yourself then expect your people to do the same. If however you regard errors as learning opportunities then you will resolve this issue quicker and help prevent a repeat in the future.

That is the key point! I work with business all the time that are constantly in déjà vu* situations.  “Haven’t we been here before?” “Didn’t this happen last month?” etc. The answer to both questions is yes and it will continue to happen until someone takes time to treat the cause NOT just the symptom!

*Déjà vu, from French, literally “already seen”, is the phenomenon of having the strong sensation that an event or experience currently being experienced has been experienced in the past.

So here’s the deal. We must treat every error/miscommunication as a learning opportunity, rather than just a chance to criticise other people (regardless of whether they are internal or external to our organisation).

Here are some top tips:

  • In a world dominated by email encourage people to use the telephone where there is less chance of misunderstandings and/or clarification can be sought
  • If a system or business process has played a part in the error then task someone to be responsible to fix it
  • If it was a pure ‘people communication’ error, then use team meetings and coaching sessions to work on effective communication.
  • Have posters on your office walls to constantly remind people of the importance THEY play in ensuring mutual understanding with colleagues & clients
  • Share ALL issues across your team and make sure everyone learns from ‘every experience’

My final tip is about the word ‘sorry’, sorry when said sincerely ends in the letter ‘y’. When said insincerely it ends with the letter ‘e’ (or sometimes several of them!). The word sorry indicates that we understand that we could have done more ourselves to prevent the error or miscommunication. If this is the case we will have learned from the experience. If we are adamant that we are right and it was “All their fault” then guess what? No learning will have taken place and the error will be repeated!

Many thanks

Stuart Allen

Trainer & Consultant at MTD Training

(Image by Renjith Krishnan at

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