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How to Win

Why Some People Don’t Learn from Their Mistakes

Think of the last time something went wrong in your life. Perhaps it was a project that came up short, an accident on the road, or even an illness. How much of it was unavoidable, and how much of it was due to mistakes you made?

If you tend to blame outside factors instead of looking at your own role, you are not alone. People tend to give themselves credit when things go well, and deflect blame when they don’t.

Social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson lays out the credit/blame phenomenon in this article in Huffington Post. She even calls it by name — psychologists refer to it as “self-serving bias” — and cites a 1980 American Psychologist article in which drivers who had accidents went to great lengths to absolve themselves of blame.

One driver offered this explanation to his insurance company: “The telephone pole was approaching. I was attempting to swerve out of its way when it struck my front end.”

Unfortunately, many of us are like that driver. We blame the telephone pole and not the person who was behind the wheel. We don’t look for causes, we look for justification. This keeps us from correcting what went wrong. No one can fix a mistake until they admit there was a mistake in the first place.

As author John C. Maxwell says, “A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.”

Golfer Bobby Jones said, “The mark of a champion is to be everlastingly on the lookout against the self.”

But how?

It helps to have an assistant or a colleague with whom you can discuss ideas. But even that hurts if two people constantly think alike. In groupthink, people make cohesion more important than testing ideas.

In “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” Patrick Lencioni says, “Harmony itself is good, I suppose, if it comes as a result of working through issues constantly and cycling through conflict. But if it comes only as a result of people holding back their opinions and honest concerns, then it’s a bad thing.”

Centuries ago, kings used court jesters, or fools, to tell them things that other people were afraid to say. Nowadays, some executives invite opposing ideas. (I would love to hear stories of strong leaders who invite dissent.)

Maybe the best safeguard against self-serving bias is a moment of pause. In the face of a mistake or misfortune, take a step back and ask, “What role did I play in this event? What could I have done differently? How can I make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

Whatever you do, be aware of self-serving bias.

As Miracle on Ice architect Herb Brooks said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

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Coach Tully speaks to sports, education and business groups. He also works one-on-one with student-athletes. For more information, call (973) 800-5836.


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