Quicksand: Obsessing Over Mistakes and Its Effect on Safety


“Why did I do that?” I say to myself as I recognize another bad decision with an even worse outcome. Inside, I feel awful; I cannot seem to do anything right, and the more I struggle, the more mistakes I make. This process leads to a circular pattern of thinking called emotional quicksand. The more you struggle with the problem, the more stuck you become. Ultimately, without intervention or the right tools to escape, it will completely envelop you and can lead to your destruction.


In a process called Error-Related Negativity, or ERN, the brain reacts within 1/1000 of a second of making an error and sends an electrical pulse through the brain. The pulse focuses the brain on paying attention to the next function and avoiding making the same mistake. The larger the mistake, the higher the ERN. In theory, we should learn from our mistakes and rarely make them after learning. Individuals preoccupied with past mistakes become obsessive and mimic traits of obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD. While in this obsessive mindset, focus on past ERNs can stunt new ERN absorption, making learning new tasks, skills, and error avoidance near impossible.


When a person makes a mistake, the most common thing they do is try and see if they can mitigate the damage and fix it or cover it up to avoid criticism and embarrassment. Supervisors and employees must be completely transparent with mistakes. When a mistake happens, we must learn from them and not hide them to avoid the perpetual cycle of reactivity. Employees should be proactive in their mistake detection and strive to learn from it to deter and eliminate that error in the future.


Humans are reflective animals and tend to dwell on past events. People can become so preoccupied with past decisions that it becomes all-encompassing and distracting to daily activities. The sunken cost fallacy is a phenomenon where an individual is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it, even when abandonment would be more beneficial. Individuals who are heavily preoccupied are more likely to miss crucial steps, which puts them at greater risk of errors with more dire consequences.


A safe and effective workplace has error management built into its framework. The workplace should be a place where errors will happen and where there are processes to deal with them effectively, swiftly, and proactively. Managers who berate or humiliate employees for mistakes are ineffective leaders, creating dangerous work environments for employees and bystanders alike. An environment of learning, recovery, and advancement is the hallmark of positive failure management. When employees are conditioned to think that making mistakes is unacceptable and there are harsh consequences for even the slightest errors, an environment of distrust, cognitive dissonance, and even larger, more hazardous errors is created. Managers need to create an environment where employees learn from errors instead of being debilitated by them.


How mistakes are dealt with can be the deciding factor in whether an employee moves forward or is held in place by their mistake. Allowing employees to make mistakes with proper follow-on training is the true test of a healthy workplace. We must allow employees the grace and understanding that errors and mistakes happen, often more than once. Using the lessons learned and adjusting on the job show the true resilience and rebounding abilities of both management and employees. Experienced management and supervisors have the foresight to anticipate errors, adjust training, eliminate common errors, and manage failure.


It is often said that “the first step in fixing a problem is to recognize it.” When you make an error, whether it is a performance-based error or a poor judgment decision, you immediately want to mitigate the damage and potentially hide it from others. This response does not allow you to learn from your mistakes; rather, it conditions you to use prevarication to avoid confrontation.

When you make an error, you must own it and move on. When you own something, it is yours, and you can learn from it.

The brain recognizes it as an error and starts building pathways to recognize similar situations in the future. If you push it off, hide it, or do not recognize it as an error, you are unlikely to learn how not to do it again.

We all make mistakes, but how we deal with them truly defines us. The key to a skilled employee is moving forward after mistakes with the lessons learned. Allowing employees to make mistakes without humiliation and retribution makes the workplace a learning environment where people freely admit their mistakes and ask for help. We must all strive to be more graceful in allowing others to be imperfect and fallible but encouraged to learn and apply the lessons learned to ensure a safe and productive workplace.