Business Psychology

Article No. 330
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Dumbest Mistakes

New research offers a strategy to reduce mistakes.

Imagine walking away from a work site to get something and leaving an unfinished task behind. Let’s say it’s a sewer line that needs a connector, and you leave to get one. You return, and you find the trench with the sewer line mostly filled in with dirt. The man you left behind is smiling, but he quickly becomes surprised and confused by your agitation, and he looks hurt when you heap insults on him. Now, you’re going to have to clear the dirt, attach the connector, and refill the trench to finish the job.

Dumb mistake. You’ll have another vivid illustration of incompetence to offer your spouse when you get home and hear “How was your day, dear?” Bless her heart. She’ll shake her head and tsk tsk with you, but that won’t get the wasted hours of work back. Funny how the same names keep coming up in our stories of dumb mistakes at work.

The truth is, competence is not evenly distributed among our employees. Some people have a lot of it, and some people seem to come up short when it’s badly needed.

We have a plan for that, and we hope it works. Unfortunately, every dumb mistake that is committed also reveals the failure of our best-laid plans to prevent them.

The problem? An important part of our plan to prevent mistakes or recover from mistakes depends upon the people who are making mistakes to ask for help. When a person is unsure what to do, we expect them to ask before they act. When a person recognizes they’ve made a mistake, we expect them to ask for help to recover from it. Asking for help. Unfortunately, either they don’t ask, or they ask someone who doesn’t know any more than they do. It’s the weak spot in our plans, and it was the subject of a fascinating study by David Hofmann from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hofmann studied 18 units in a 500-bed, multiservice hospital. One hundred and forty-seven nurses participated (93% female, 86% Caucasian, average age 41, and average tenure 9 years). He asked the nurses to name the people they would go to if they needed help, and he studied these responses and looked for patterns in the choices they made. He was able to assess the competency of all the nurses, and he was able to recognize the factors that influenced the choices nurses made in selecting someone to help them.

The specific problem Hofmann studied was the competency of the person people turned to for help. Past research has revealed that people often avoid experts who could really help them and turn to people who don’t know any more than they do.

In Hofmann’s study, he found the same pattern. The nurses who everyone rated as most competent were also least likely to be asked for help, and nurses who lacked competency were sought out for help much more frequently. Hofmann dug into the data to find out why.

Hofmann found that status hierarchies based on competency develop very quickly in work groups, and people’s perceptions of where they place in this hierarchy influences what they do. Highly competent, high status workers act differently than lower competency, low status workers.

Hofmann also examined the factors that govern who people turn to for help. The two most important factors were accessibility and trust. If someone needed help, they looked around to see who was available, and they looked for someone who would help them without making them feel stupid. The low status nurses were very sensitive to losing face, and admitting a mistake or being unsure of what to do heightened this sensitivity. The actions of the high-status nurses at these moments were crucial. The slightest hint of condescension, the merest expression of alarm or disgust stung the low-status nurses, and they learned an important lesson: don’t go to this person again. And they didn’t.

Hofmann next looked for examples where this pattern wasn’t repeated, and although they were few, he did find a way to correct this problem. It helped to designate highly competent nurses as “preceptors.” These were people tasked with the role of answering questions and correcting mistakes. With this formal role assigned to them, the highly competent nurses made themselves more accessible and were more serious about filling this role with sensitivity and compassion. By changing the reactions of the highly competent nurses, the low-status, low competency nurses changed their actions, too, and they sought out the right people to help them.

We can copy this practice in our businesses, and Hofmann recommends that we do so. Tell your best people what you expect. Tell them to remind themselves that dumb questions offer a teachable moment. They give you the opportunity to 1) reduce the need for this question to be answered again, and 2) help insure that the next problem will be brought to the right person. People who seek help need to learn that going to this expert solves the problem and doesn’t hurt. With this lesson learned, our plans for reducing mistakes have a better chance of working.

Reference: Hofmann, David, Adam Grant, and Zhike Lei (2009) Seeking Help in the Shadow of Doubt: The Sensemaking Processes Underlying How Nurses Decide Whom to Ask for Advice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1261-1274.

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