I like the George Orwell quote: ‘The secret of leadership is to combine the belief in one’s own infallibility, with a power to learn from past mistakes‘ and it prompted the idea for one of our Top Ten Conflict Tips; in this case top ten ways to learn from our past mistakes:
- Find ways to recognize and overcome our profound self righteousness that makes us believe we are right when it is patently obvious we are not to any unbiased external observer. We can actually do this in the lab by holding a 7 digit number in working memory while writing an assessment of what happened. This shuts down our conscious brain which is so clever at self-deception. And we need to overcome our even stronger sense that our judgment is infallible. 🙂
- Thereby actually recognize our mistakes, though admitting them to others may be another matter. The best way to do this is to ask what data would prove us wrong and then go looking for it.
- Formally, we can do this be conducting US Military After Action Reviews, starting with what we think went well and why we think so; then looking at what could have been better and why we think that; and finally what we would do differently next time. The latter might provide some escape route from self-righteous self deception because we can frame ourselves as ‘the sort of person who can learn from experience’ which might flatter our self righteousness into keeping quiet.
- Once we can identify our mistakes, we can subject them to what Japanese auto makers call ‘root cause analysis’: asking ourselves why we made the mistake. What lack of error proofing prevented us seeing and avoiding the mistake. Again this may help as it moves from blaming ourselves (something our self righteous self hates) to understanding and fixing the cause without blame or as the Tao Te Ching says: ‘no blame’
- If we regularly do root cause analysis and are honest in the mistakes we acknowledge we can slowly unpick our most common mistakes and do something to prevent them in future. Most military incompetence comes from the failure to do this.
- Indeed we should not start a new round of actions or projects without looking at the After Action Reviews we have recorded (in writing) on similar past projects. ‘Post-mortems’ are useless unless we actually use them to change our future behavior.
- Of course if we have built trust in conflict, we might even get the other side’s take on what has happened and thereby get a richer perspective.
- All of this is easier if we don’t have a brittle sense of self with low self-esteem covered up by self-aggrandizing self-promotion. So knowing ourselves and appreciating our realistic self worth helps a lot
- A coach or mentor can help us conduct honest reviews of our actions and projects by asking searching questions without putting the person they are helping down
- And of course, in learning from conflict, it is very helpful to use a systematic conflict discipline like the Creative Conflict Model or Fisher and Ury Interest Based Bargaining, because we can break up our After Action Review and look at each stage of the process and how well it conformed to good process discipline
The maestro: George Orwell: