Are you confident that you always “learn your lesson”?

Realisation of a mistake

It hardly seems a year since the excitement of having the Eurovision Song Contest hosted in Liverpool. Well, here we are 12 months later, and there is no less excitement in the Jones household even though the competition has moved on to Malmo, Sweden. Tonight, I’ll be one of the 200 million people watching the musical battle that will decide the “best” song in Europe. Maybe.

For the uninitiated, the contest has been going on all week. Tonight is the “final”, but there have been two semi-finals on Tuesday and Thursday. During one of these, there was a “celebration” of several entries from Norway over the years. Each of them scored “null points”. The entries were so bad that no European judge thought them worthy of a single point. You might have thought that after so many years of failing to achieve any points, the Norwegians would have learned their lesson and stopped entering the contest. They haven’t because they are in the final again tonight!

Earlier this week, we also discovered that the UK Border Force does not appear to have learned any lessons. The “e-gate” security system at British airports collapsed just as people returned from a bank holiday weekend away. People spent hours waiting as they had to be processed individually. The same issue happened a year ago and twice in 2021, shortly after the system was installed. The Government has repeatedly said, “Lessons must be learned”. Indeed, that line was trotted out again this week.

The same statement keeps appearing in the long-running Post Office scandal. Both the Post Office and the Government say they will learn lessons. I don’t know that the Government has. The disastrous software provided to the Post Office came from Fujistu. Guess which company the Government appointed in 2021 to run the “e-gates” at airports. It doesn’t look like any “lessons were learned”.

At an event this week, I had the same thought when someone presented on a subject as though they had great knowledge of it. I knew there were people in the room who knew way more than the person speaking. I squirmed in my seat, worrying that someone was going to expose the person’s lack of knowledge. Thankfully, the experts in the room were more polite. But what struck me was that the presenter had tried something similar at another event I had attended where his lack of knowledge was exposed. He had not learned his lesson or considered how to present to people who know more.

We see this all the time in business, of course: people who say they will “learn their lesson” but never do. They repeat the same old errors week after week. Each time the problem is mentioned, they apologise, say they will mend their ways, and then do the precise opposite. 

One of the reasons this happens is emotional discomfort. Accepting that we have made a mistake and must correct it is uncomfortable. We are primed to avoid such discomfort. Hence, there is apparent safety in sticking with the status quo, even though we know we could make mistakes in the future. Facing future mistakes is less uncomfortable for our emotions than dealing with the actual issue itself. 

Another issue is the lack of reflection. Few people actively reflect on their day, despite research showing the value of taking time to do this. Indeed, research in Australia showed that the main reason people do not actively reflect on their day is lack of time. Thankfully, Harvard Business School has published a guide on fitting reflection into your day.

It is worthwhile doing this. A study of a call centre found that when employees were forced to spend the last 15 minutes of the day writing a reflection, their productivity increased. They had less time than their colleagues to answer calls, but they answered more. Their active reflection improved their productivity. In other words, you can do more in less time when you reflect. Making it a habit is what you need to do, much like the call centre employees. You do have the time.

Reflection is the key way in which you can “learn your lesson”. The presenter, who tried a second time to appear more expert than he was, obviously did not reflect on his first attempt. The people who run the “e-gates” do not seem to have reflected on what happened in the past couple of years. And poor old Norway can’t have reflected on its Eurovision performance (though I could be proven wrong tonight…!) As for the Government reflecting, well that’s an entirely different story…!

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