Think about the last time you made a mistake. Did you try to pass the buck? Or don’t you remember making one? Or, on the contrary, did you feel really bad about it? The latest research shows that the way we react to our slip-ups says a lot about our personality in general. Two people have set about looking into this relationship: Ben Dattner, who holds a doctorate in organizational psychology from the University of New York and Robert Hogan, who was awarded a doctorate by the University of California and has received many accolades for his work. The two of them analyzed data about hundreds of thousands of people, with the aim of identifying the main ways we react after making a mistake. At the end of this painstaking research, they reached the conclusion that 70% of all people could be classified as belonging to one of three broad groups. (These in turn were divided into eleven sub-groups, but we’ll leave a detailed analysis for another time). So, let’s look at their three main classifications, and let’s also think about which group we fall into.

It’s someone else’s fault. 

“It wasn’t me” is the classic reaction of children when they do something wrong… and of a good number of adults, too. People who pass on the blame often react in an extreme way when others make a mistake, and they tend to jump to hasty conclusions about whose fault something is. If this describes you, then you’re going to find it difficult to learn from your mistakes. You’ll also get very defensive when you receive any kind of negative feedback, and you may even start to play the victim or feel that you’re being picked upon. You’ll also constantly complain about how unfair life is. As the young child said… “The vase fell down all of itself. I just happened to be playing nearby.” If you’re like this, everything is always someone else’s fault. … Does it ring a bell?
 It’s my fault. 

The opposite of this is to blame ourselves for absolutely everything, even before anyone else thinks that a mistake has been made. All the “professional martyrs” who are forever running themselves down are to be found in this group. The risk of this attitude is analysis-paralysis, because if we just listen to ourselves, we’ll never do anything. Our inner judge condemns us to permanent suffering. The common denominator here is that everything is always our fault, even though sometimes this perception makes no sense at all. This group’s mantra is always to say mea culpa.
What mistake? Everything’s fine. 

The third group comprises all those who deny that a mistake has been made. This attitude springs from several sources, such as getting angry because we’re having the finger pointed at us, denying having anything to do with the subject under discussion, and even claiming that nothing has gone wrong. If this describes you, you don’t like to worry about mistakes, which means that you will miss out on opportunities to learn; you hope that you’ll be forgiven for whatever you do, and are not aware of the harm you cause; or you may tend to give complex explanations for simple mistakes. The watchword for this group is: nothing is wrong.

Many of us have either evaded responsibility for some of our mistakes in the past or, on the contrary, we’ve saddled ourselves not only with our own mistakes but with those of others. When we view mistakes in the wrong light and react inappropriately to them, it’s highly likely that we’ll put obstacles in the path of learning from them, since the first step in learning from a mistake is to recognize it, without blowing it out of all proportion.


The way we view our mistakes will determine how much we learn from them.

So, what can we do?

  • Become aware of how we act.

How do we deal with our mistakes? To find out, a good strategy is to think of the professional or personal challenges that we’ve had to tackle and to analyze how we acted and what we could have done better. It can be very helpful to ask a trusted friend, a colleague, a mentor or a teacher about how we react to problems. They may reveal a blind spot of ours and we may be surprised by what they have to say.

  • Become aware of the particular world in which we live.

How do people respond to the messages that we give out? Becoming aware of the particular world in which we live involves finding out the best way to deal with its problematic aspects, both in the personal and professional areas of our lives.

  • Use new strategies.

Once we have detected our bad habits, we are in a position to change them for ones that are better fitted to our circumstances.

The first step is as easy as it is difficult: listen and communicate with others. It may seem obvious, but many of us forget to ask for feedback or we don’t explain our actions and intentions well enough. Especially when it’s a question of giving someone credit or blaming them, it’s better not to assume that we know what others are thinking, or that they understand where we’re coming from.

The second step is to think about the situation and the people concerned. What has happened? What factors have come into play? Who was involved? What role was played by each person?

The third step is to think before acting. On many occasions, it’s simply not possible to give a quick answer that solves the problem; however, an unconsidered reaction can definitely make the situation worse. That’s why it’s a good idea to stop to think before we act when we’re faced with a complex situation.

The fourth step is to see what we can learn. Mistakes happen. Sometimes it’s our fault, sometimes it’s someone else’s fault, and on some occasions no one is to blame. Whatever the situation, there is always something that we can learn from it. You may find it helpful to draw up a list of the factors that caused the problem to occur in the first place.


Can You Handle Failure?  Written by Ben Dattner and Robert Hogan, published in 2011 in the Harvard Business Review.


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