Women, Men and Handling Mistakes

Most agree that women are more likely to agonize and blame themselves for mistakes and men get over their blunders faster and look for others to blame. But is there any research to back up this common wisdom? Yup.
03/02/2011 03:25pm ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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When I tell people that I'm writing about mistakes -- and that men and women tend to handle mistakes differently -- I usually get a knowing response. Most agree that women are more likely to agonize and blame themselves and men get over their blunders faster and look for others to blame.

But is there any research to back up this common wisdom?


Patricia Bryans, when working at the of the Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University in England conducted one of the few studies directly looking at how men and women react to mistakes in the workplace. At first Bryans surveyed 45 men and 45 women from 30 to 50-years-old, in professions ranging from teachers, social workers, managers, police officers, human resources managers, and health professionals. She then talked in-depth with twelve of those surveyed.

Interestingly, Bryans did not set out to study gender differences in mistakes, but rather the distinctions emerged from a more general study. Here is what she found:

"Throughout the data, men told 'tidy' stories; generally they found mistakes difficult to recall and were certainly brief and more concise in their responses. Through their stories they were able to rewrite their biographies to show themselves in a better light. However, the women told 'messy' stories in which they continued to blame themselves and to speak emotionally about their mistakes."

For example, typical responses from men when asked about their past mistakes were,

"I feel philosophical about it now -- a learning experience. It seemed like a good idea at the time, was probably years ahead of my time in some ways, but misjudged the organizational culture."

In contrast, one woman stated that:

"Although it happened some years ago, it is probably the worst mistake I have made at work. I am usually careful to avoid mistakes so I was particularly upset about this one at the time and it has remained in my memory."

Not all women fell into neat categories.

Annette, a health professional who made a mistake in the type of treatment she gave a patient, did not speak of strong emotions, but said the mistake certainly affected her current practice in a positive way by teaching her junior doctors the importance of honesty.

But Annette was an exception. Twenty-two women -- but only four men -- said they were still living with their mistakes. And when responding to the question "How did you feel about your mistake?" there were sixty-four mentions among women of feeling stupid, silly or foolish, embarrassed, mortified, devastated, gutted or terrible, and losing weight or sleep. In contrast, the same emotions were mentioned only 20 times by the men.

Of course, it is possible at least some of the men actually felt worse about a mistake than they let on, but thought it was unmanly to expose their feelings so baldly.

Other research, this time by American academics, focused on how men and women differ in responding to feedback, which provides another way to gain insight into this area. If we fear negative feedback, we'll fear making mistakes -- or likewise, if we only want positive feedback, we'll avoid blunders at all costs.

Some of the findings? While there were no gender difference in happiness after receiving positive feedback, women were unhappier and less confident than men when they got the negative feedback. But, interestingly enough, there was no evidence that women perceived the feedback as more accurate than the men did.

Nonetheless, women tend to be more dejected by negative feedback than buoyed up by positive responses.

I would never generalize by saying every man and every woman falls into these categories. I'm sure we all know exceptions But I think, from research and my own experience - yes, I'm a self-flagellator who tends to worry over every mistake - it's clear that the genders tend to approach mistakes differently. The reasons why are many, which I delve into in my book. But the reality is, that, much as we would like to think otherwise, neither sex has a monopoly on the "right" way to cope with mistakes. Rather we could each learn from each other. Women can spend less energy beating themselves up and more energy learning from the mistake. I'm not advocating blaming "the system," but being able to depersonalize the mistake helps us to view it more objectively and learn whatever lessons can be learned from it.

Men, on the other hand, rather than leaving the error hastily behind, need to realistically look at how the problem occurred and what can be done to prevent it in the future.

And maybe, ultimately, we can all be more accepting of our own - and each other's - imperfection. After all, that's one thing each and every one of us has in common.

Alina Tugend writes the ShortCuts column for The New York Times. Her book "Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong," (Riverhead) will be out March 17. She can be found on Twitter.