Fail fast is all the rage, but what separates people (and companies) who are intolerant or afraid of making mistakes from those who have what it takes to thrive in the face of failure?

Both mindset and environment impact how we feel – and in turn respond – when mistakes happen at work. Our values and beliefs hold the key.

Recent brain science gives us some clues for how to avoid the mental biases and narrow thinking that characterise people and organisations stuck in the ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ or ‘tried and true’ mentality. And it also offers methods for shifting your mindset so that you can become stronger through change.

blog-1Reframing your mindset and beliefs

It’s normal to feel hurt when your idea is re-buffed, people laugh when you did not mean to be funny, or when your contribution at a team meeting is met with stony silence. But we don’t have to become immobilised by the pain.

Humans are very social beings. From the time we are born, we depend on others to survive. And even once we grow up, people fare much better when they live and work in groups.

Our brains are wired to protect us from being rejected by giving us a jolt of pain whenever we are in danger of being excluded. We have to condition ourselves to become more resilient – even when others are not supportive – in order to innovate.

Scientists have found that what we value and believe can significantly alter and improve our ability to cope with the inevitable negative judgements that come with failure. When we work in the context of our values, we persist longer and work harder even when we are tired or in pain, including social pain.

Keeping the focus on why we are doing what we are doing (what the work means to us) helps us to override our natural fears, pride and avoidance in the face of pushback and negative evaluation. It also makes our performance better.

Recent studies have shown that when people bring to mind their values they actually have more activity in the part of the brain that is associated with finding and fixing mistakes. We call it the Mistake Minder™, which enables them to learn as they go – ultimately resulting in better performance.

A second technique to shift mindset is changing your beliefs. Research has shown that believing your intellect and abilities are malleable/changeable makes you better able to cope with being judged by others. Scientists call this a ‘growth mindset’.

People with a growth mindset also have higher activation in the Mistake Minder™ part of their brain. They naturally learn and perform better than people who believe that their abilities are not changeable – what’s been called a ‘fixed mindset’.

One technique for shifting your thinking to a growth mindset is to recognise and test your assumptions about yourself and others’ successes. The key is to recognise the impact that hard work, effort and learning from mistakes has on your results.

Creating a learning culture

To become a learning organisation, you need to foster an environment that supports learning. One simple brain-based method for doing this is to shift the focus from fault-finding to system solutions.

This means analysing mistakes from within the context of the system.

You start by identifying all the things that contributed to the mistake or failure versus whose fault it was. This approach shifts the focus from who to what. And it works better if you create a formal time to do it.

Also, rather than waiting for a big mistake, routinely set aside some time after meetings or other pieces of work to review:

  • What worked and what didn’t?
  • What contributed to both success and failure?

This system-based analysis not only gets you into the habit of seeing and making adjustments to your mistakes as part of everyday work but also helps you to avoid several mental biases that come about when we assume success is the result of a single person’s actions.

Incorporating this technique into your day-to-day work helps you to become familiar with the process of learning from your mistakes. And our brains crave familiarity!