Negative Error Cultures - Joe Abittan

Negative Error Cultures

No matter how smart, observant, and rational we are, we will never have perfect information for all of the choices we make in our lives. There will always be decisions that we have to make based on a limited set of information, and when that happens, there will be a risk that we won’t make the right decision. In reality, there is risk in almost any decision we make, because there are very few choices where we have perfect information and fully understand all the potential consequences of our decisions and actions. This means the chance for errors is huge, and we will make many mistakes throughout our lives. How our cultures respond to these errors is important in determining how we move forward from them.

 

In Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer writes the following about negative error cultures:

 

“On the one end of the spectrum are negative error cultures. People living in such a culture fear to make errors of any kind, good or bad, and, if an error does occur, they do everything to hide it. Such a culture has little chance to learn from errors and discover new opportunities.”

 

None of us want to live in a world with errors, but the reality is that we spend a lot of our time engulfed by them. We don’t want to make mistakes on the job and potentially lose a raise, promotion, or employment altogether. Many people belong to religious social communities or live in families characterized by negative error cultures where any social misstep feels like the end of the world and poses expulsion from the community/family. Additionally, our world of politics is typically a negative error culture, where one political slip-up is often enough to irrevocably damage an individual’s political career.

 

Gigerenzer encourages us move away from negative error cultures because they stifle learning, reduce creativity, and fail to acknowledge the reality that our world is inherently a world of risk. We cannot avoid all risk because we cannot be all-knowing, and that means we will make mistakes. We can try to minimize the mistakes we make and their consequences, but we can only do so by acknowledging mistakes, owning up to them, learning, adapting, and improving future decision making.

 

Negative error cultures don’t expose mistakes and do not learn from them. They prevent individuals and organizations from finding the root cause of an error, and don’t allow for changes and adaptation. What is worse, efforts to hid errors can lead to more errors. Describing hospitals with negative error cultures, Gigerenzer writes, “zero tolerance for talking about errors produces more errors and less patient safety.” Being afraid to ever make a mistake makes us less willing to innovate, to learn, and to improve the world around us. It isolates us, and keeps us from improving and reducing risk for ourselves and others in the future. In the end, negative error cultures drive more of the thing they fear, reinforcing a vicious cycle of errors, secrecy, and more errors.

On Tolerance

In the book United, Senator Cory Booker shares his views of the American political culture and society, and how he has come to understand the decisions, thoughts, and views of our nation. Throughout the book he shares stories and lessons that he learned from other people growing up in New Jersey and serving as a city council member and as mayor. Frank Hutchins was one of the people who shaped Booker’s thoughts and understandings, and Frank’s views, along with Booker’s Christian views, influenced the way in which Booker thinks about tolerance and unity in our society.

Booker writes, “I came to see Frank as someone who was fighting against the common notion of tolerance. For most of us, tolerance demands only that we acknowledge another’s right to exist. Tolerance says that if they cease to be, if  they succumb to injustice or disappear from the face of the earth, then we are no worse off.” In this view of tolerance, Booker references the way in which we grudgingly accept people who are different from us, who we somehow don’t like, and who we think are morally or socially wrong for being who they are. This view of tolerance says that we will accept people when legally obliged to do so, and we will outwardly smile at them while inside of us a storm of negativity brews. This view of tolerance may allow the other to be safe from violence within our society, but it will never accept the other and will never bring the other into our world to share a full life. Rather, the other will always be marginalized and pushed to the edges of society and hopefully to a place where we have minimal interactions with them.

Booker counters this idea of tolerance in his book with the idea of love. He is deeply Christian and his views of love are shaped from his spiritual beliefs. His focus on love is very much in the fashion of Lincoln, to whom the quote is often attributed, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them a friend?” Booker writes, “Tolerance is becoming accustomed to injustice; love is becoming disturbed and activated by another’s adverse condition. Tolerance crosses the street; love confronts. Tolerance builds fences; love opens doors. Tolerance breeds indifference; love demands engagement. Tolerance couldn’t care less; love always cares more.” For Booker, what is important is our shared humanity and being able to come together as an accepting community to share purpose and value. When we begin to fracture society by limiting participation and full inclusion and criticize differences or shortcomings, we drive isolation and prevent people from growing and improving not just their life, but society as a whole. Approaching people with more love, empathy, and compassion helps us build a community while simply tolerating those who are different pushes people away and denounces those who are different.