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The Delicate Balance of Error Sharing and Trust in Organisations

In organisational challenges, the ever-present hurdle of errors stemming from human fallibility poses a continuous conundrum. These inadvertent deviations from established goals, rules, and standards can either lead to adverse outcomes or serve as catalysts for invaluable learning and performance enhancement.

When employees opt to keep errors under wraps, an organisation misses out on a crucial opportunity for growth. The lack of communication with managers, who often lack visibility into these missteps, may result in substantial losses and, in extreme cases, catastrophic consequences. Despite the widespread recognition of the importance of error communication, scant attention has been given to understanding the repercussions for employees who bravely disclose their errors.

Distinguishing itself from formal error reporting, error sharing encompasses both formal channels and informal communication, transcending the confines of official error-reporting systems. The act of sharing errors with a team leader is particularly delicate laden with tension, as it exposes team members to risks associated with performance evaluation and resource allocation overseen by the team leader.

Errors, being socially undesirable, are positioned as a kind of sensitive information. Disclosing errors is equated to employees revealing personal, sensitive details, rendering them vulnerable to judgment and criticism. While error sharing is a demonstration of candour, honesty, and authenticity, it walks a tightrope by simultaneously revealing information about unsatisfactory performance, potentially breeding scepticism about the employee’s ability and, consequently, jeopardising the leader’s trust.

Informed by the self-disclosure framework, the interplay of two key error attributes – visibility and severity – takes centre stage in shaping the relationship between employee error sharing and leader trust. These attributes significantly influence how leaders assess the error sharer’s ability and integrity.

The impact of error sharing on leader trust is nuanced, resembling a double-edged sword. It negatively influences trust through the evaluation of ability while concurrently exerting a positive influence through the evaluation of integrity. This duality underscores the constructive and challenging dimensions of error sharing in workplace relationships.

Adding another layer of complexity, the visibility and severity of errors act as moderators in this relationship. When errors are less apparent or more severe, the positive impact on trust intensifies, presenting a multifaceted scenario for consideration.

Moreover, the conceptualisations of error sharing and error attributes contribute meaningfully to the field of error management research. Viewing error sharing as a continuous behavioural tendency offers a richer understanding compared to binary approaches. While confirming the positive connection between error sharing and leaders’ integrity evaluation, the potential harm to evaluations of employees’ ability prompts concerns. Managers, to encourage error sharing, must be mindful of this potential negative evaluation, ensuring unbiased and justified ability assessments. A performance management system that recognises errors as valuable learning opportunities becomes an invaluable asset.

The enduring recommendation to foster a culture tolerant of errors and supportive of honest communication remains relevant. Shifting the mindset to view errors as learning opportunities can fuel open discussions and reshape how errors are perceived within organisations.

Recognising that error sharing may impact ability evaluations; employees are urged to adopt strategies such as apology and compensation when divulging errors. Proactively addressing errors before or after sharing, coupled with providing comprehensive information, becomes a proactive approach to mitigate potential unfair evaluations.

The assumption that open communication about errors always fosters trust is challenged. A more intricate relationship is revealed, emphasising the need for a nuanced understanding of the role of open communication in building trust. Errors are positioned as sensitive workplace information, employing the self-disclosure framework to comprehend the relational impact of error sharing. The nuanced association between open communication and trust, considering the mediating mechanisms of ability and integrity evaluations, further enriches the discourse. Finally, the examination of error attributes as contingency factors advances comprehension of when the strength of the links between error sharing and leader trust may fluctuate.

Insights by: Dr Jay Wasim and Parnia Ahmed