Learn from your mistakes.

This is common wisdom in life, but are we following it in the learning and development field? We know that people make mistakes, or we wouldn’t need training. So, how are we handling mistakes in training?

We typically think of mistakes as something we want to avoid as much as possible, but this mindset means we are missing out on a wealth of learning potential. We can harness mistakes made during training as a tool to enhance learning by providing important feedback. This process helps learners both to understand concepts better and to learn strategies to quickly recover from inevitable future errors.

Mistakes on the job can have significant consequences, but encouraging errors in a safe setting, like training, can benefit learners without the cost. To gain the most value out of your learners’ mistakes, consider using error management training. Research has shown that error management training (EMT) can lead to better outcomes than training that discourages mistakes.

There are two core features of EMT that make it effective. First, EMT creates an environment where errors are likely by giving learners only minimal instruction and encouraging them to actively explore and experiment on their own. Second, EMT explicitly encourages learners to make mistakes. This positive framing of errors is important for managing any negative learner emotions that stem from making mistakes.

These core features create an active learning approach in which learners independently explore and interact with the content. As they make mistakes, their trial and error will result in a deeper and more adaptive understanding of the content.

Although EMT can offer many benefits to learning, it is more effective for certain types of people in certain situations. For example, the active exploration aspect of EMT is not as beneficial for older workers. They tend to be more successful with a structured training environment (the opposite of active exploration), but they do benefit from instructions that encourage errors.

Should you be using EMT in your training program? Use this list of criteria to identify when EMT will work best.

Adaptive Transfer

The goal of your training influences the effectiveness of EMT. It is most effective for adaptive transfer, which is the ability to apply concepts to novel environments and problems. If your goal is for learners to be able to apply knowledge in a way that parallels the training environment, then EMT isn’t as useful. If you want learners to be able to apply what they learn across a diverse set of circumstances, EMT may be the right choice.


EMT can help people learn less concrete skills, like generating creative solutions to novel problems. Research has found that solutions are more original and elegant when talented learners receive EMT instruction. If you want your learners to leave training with a rigid adherence to the content, as may be the case in compliance training, EMT is not as useful. If you are looking for learners to come away from training with the ability to approach problems creatively, EMT could be a good fit.

Training Top Talent

People who begin training with greater ability usually benefit the most from EMT. These advanced learners are better able to learn through experimentation. If you have novice learners, it may be best to start them out with more structured training. If you have advanced learners and are looking for a way to take them to the next level, EMT could be your solution.

Leadership Training

Synthesizing all three of the situations above, you might conclude that EMT would be especially useful in leadership training, and you would be right! Your organization’s leaders should be employees with high ability who have to creatively address problems in a way that adapts to a changing global environment. They’ve probably reached their position by making relatively few mistakes, but as they advance, mistakes will become more likely and more costly. EMT will help them develop a deeper understanding of the complex content needed to lead effectively, while also training them to manage the negative emotions that come with their mistakes. Then, they’ll be able to adapt and correct mistakes more quickly.