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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Someone Makes a Mistake: The Hidden Functions in Action

Someone performs a specific function wrong. So, the business wastes several hundred dollars of materials. That is a big deal for this size small business.

Here is what plays out in the group dynamics from vision through relationships to learning. The explanation behind these events is invisible to the participants; they only see the visible actions and feel their emotional responses.


Because the group has a clear vision, they know that this setback is going to impact their ability to achieve the excellent result they wanted. It is going to take the business additional resources, which means that something else is going to get put on hold or money is coming out of a rainy day fund. Also, the mistake is a clear violation of excellence. It affects others’ work, and so the whole group is suffering.

As a result, everyone is upset, even angry. They feel let down, like their hard work is lessened. And they want to understand why the mistake happened. These feelings seem like they are aimed at the person who made the mistake. That person is embarrassed and defensive. He feels like he let the group down.

If the mistake occurs in an organization that lacks a clear vision, then it is nearly impossible for the group to move anywhere from the mistake. Without an explanation for why the error was bad, other than “money”, the group is likely to be tied up in arguments about “well, you did something like this before” and “it wasn’t that bad, yes it was.” Groups without vision lack the clarity of a direction that creates the will to address an issue beyond financial punishment, and the connections between members that allow an individual to self-examine and have a desire to do better.


To resolve this violation of the vision, the group uses relationships to create change. The group members, collectively, needs to make sure the specific behavior that created the mistake does not happen again. To do this, one or more individuals will have to perform behavioral change.

The mistake will be resolved through one or more interchange relationship(s). This might be failure in an individual task which will be resolved through training, or a motivation issue which will be resolved through performance management. There might be misaligned incentives, which reward alternative or substitute behaviors that allow the mistake to happen. It might be the result of a malfunctioning or absent information or decision interchange, which will be resolved through leadership creating a new process. A task might be reassigned, because someone else is better held responsible.

While making concrete changes to the things that are exchanged between members of the group, the members are also experiencing emotional responses. The quality, good or bad, of these responses is determined by the emotion relationships that exist before the mistake. The people who were affected by the change are either recognizing that the mistake was a genuine error, and that the person did not intend or would have willingly avoided it. Alternatively, the other members of the group are projecting blame and criticism upon the person, as if his actions were due to character flaws or a lack of caring about the vision and the group.

These responses actually happen first, before any changes to relationships: this complexity of human behavior makes it vital that the right emotion relationships be in place before the mistake, or else every mistake becomes a demonstration of laziness and deliberate harm to the group. As a result, the group — both collectively and as individuals — makes changes to the interchange relationships above in ways that are determined by the preexisting emotion relationships. Strong, positive emotion relationships allow the group to move forward and improve. Negative, critical emotion relationships create harmful change that prevents the mistake from becoming a learning moment.

In all of these cases, the members of the group act upon each other. The goal of these changes is to create a different set of performed behaviors. Assuming that the answer is not to immediately remove the area of responsibility from the person who made the mistake (which is a very definitive way of changing behavior), then the goal of these interactions is to have that person perform a new or different behavior that prevents the mistake from happening again. This brings us to the process of learning.


As we know, behavioral change is hard: it is uncomfortable. To overcome this discomfort, the learner must have greater discomfort in not changing. So the group’s anger and frustration, and the responsible individual’s embarrassment, are the pressure that allows the group and each individual to overcome the discomfort of learning to accomplish behavioral change. These emotions, created by the group in response to a mistake, are a learning marker. They are, in effect, the group’s way of creating learning.

This does not work if the person sublimates his embarrassment into defensiveness or blame. If that happens, it is unlikely that he will accomplish behavioral change. If the organization has a strong shared vision and productive relationships, and if the individual has the necessary support in the learning process, then this outcome can be avoided. If these conditions are missing, it is likely that this opportunity for growth and improvement will turn into a set of negative emotion reactions and therefore build even more unproductive emotion relationships.


And that brings us to the role of leadership. As leaders, we are responsible for creating the conditions that allow a mistake to improve our organization. When we understand how the experience of working in a group flows through the functions of leadership, then we can adjust and build what the group needs. These functions are often hidden, disguised as feelings, distributed among group members. We bring them out into the open so that we can act upon them, and in doing so we improve our own abilities to see, understand, and influence the group.

When we do our job well, a mistake like this becomes an event that pulls the group together, re-aligns them towards their shared vision, allows them to assess and find areas of improvement, and eventually creates new successes to celebrate. Do this often enough and the organization becomes able to achieve outcomes that were not possible before.

Organizations with good leadership grow and get better. Organizations with bad leadership suffer and fail.

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