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Is This Really Error Culture?

How science evaluates the chancellor's COVID-19 crisis management

-Expert opinion-

Miriam Müthel - March 30, 2021



In business, this is known as the principle of "failing fast and failing forward." In view of the current COVID-19 situation in Germany, fast and effective learning from mistakes seems urgent, if not absolutely necessary. Fast learning, but above all better problemsolving, is therefore currently much more important than an apology - even if the gesture is refreshing and empathetic.

The chancellor'sapology should therefore be evaluated primarily in terms of whether it will spur quick and effective learning from previous mistakes - and thus greater effectiveness of Germany's COVID-19 measures - in the short term.

The apology is impressive, but not what we need

On March 24, 2021, the chancellor said of the rescinded Easter Truce, "This is solely my fault [...]." However, as the Easter Truce was a joint decision of the chancellor and the 16 prime ministers of the states on March 22 and 23, 2021, she cannot be solely responsible for it at all - especially since the restrictions on everyday life such as contact restrictions and closure of stores and restaurants are decided by the counties themselves. As such, her apology implies that she is willing to take the entirety of the blame for the mistake and its negative consequences, despite being by no means solely responsible for it. In doing so, she demonstrates that she is ready to take the appropriate "Senge" (Berlin slang for "beating"), as she said on March 28, 2021 with Anne Will. At the same time, however, it also prevents an open discussion about the reasons behind the collective failure.

From a scientific point of view, such an open discussion about the reasons for the collective failure is vital, as it enables those involved to learn from their mistakes and thus find better solutions in the future. The chancellor's apology ultimately circumvented that this important and collective discussion will take place, simply because it directs the responsibility and subsequent blame onto Chancellor Merkel rather than the prime ministers for the urgently needed "failing fast and failing forward".

An apology for past mistakes or a liberating blow for the future?

Apologies are usually retroactive. That is to say, an apology is predominantly necessary for something that already happened in the past. However, apologies can also be made proactively. In this case, the apology is the first step in a preparation for a future event. I apologize today because I want to make a difference tomorrow and need the confidence of others to do so.

The chancellor's apology could very well be classically retroactive. After all, as she reasoned, she bears "ultimate responsibility" qua office. However, this all-encompassing, retroactive apology does not apply in this situation. According to the Constitution, the chancellor only determines the guidelines of federal policy, i.e., neither state policy nor detailed decisions, and accordingly has no responsibility for the detailed decisions of the state governments in dealing with COVID-19. The chancellor has thus deliberately taken on more responsibility for the collective failure than would have been necessary. Why is she doing this?

The decision would make sense if it were directed toward the future, as it would then be intended as a first step toward shifting responsibility from the state to the federal level. Because if the chancellor (as the person responsible for government and thus federal policy) is solely to blame, then she must also offer a solution at the government level. In this case, the apology would show that the chancellor has lost confidence in the possibility that the individual heads of state are able or even willing to learn from their past mistakes for the common good of all Germany (beyond their particular interests). If this were so, then her threat last Sunday on Anne Will would be only logical: She threatened to amend the Infection Protection Act, which would give the federal government more powers of intervention than the states.

Her apology - and thereby her willingness to bear the "scorch" alone - could thus be a preemptive investment to justify this step. She assumes full blame in order to justify her pursuit of full responsibility for solving the problem. According to the saying: You have made your bed, now you have to lie in it.

The apology itself could prove to be a mistake for the chancellor

Since the Bundestag and Bundesrat are involved in legislative changes, the chancellor risks her credibility with this apology. After all, if she does not follow through - either by merely threatening to do so or by actually implementing a change in the law - then her apology would indicate that she is solely to blame for the current plight but incapable of getting it under control. Initial comments in the media with regard to her "lack of assertiveness" (Tagesspiegel March 29, 2021), "lack of authority" (Tagesspiegel March 29, 2021) or "slipping allegiance" (Zeit Online, March 29, 2021) already give this impression.

The chancellor has thus put herself under pressure with her apology. Now she must deliver, otherwise her apology will become a mistake which will impact her negatively. She is, as the Süddeutsche writes on March 29, 2021, "finished". So, the resulting inevitable showdown will probably occur sooner than later.

Why the apology in and of itself is not yet a ray of hope for the German error culture

In any case, her apology is not a good sign for Germany, because truly learning from mistakes requires a culture of open discussion at all levels, as well as an effective and efficient learning process. The Chancellor's threat to make the COVID-19 fight a "top priority" proves that the collective learning process is failing and that we can hope for no "failing forward" and certainly no "failing fast" in Germany for the time being. All in all, the situation shows once again how far we still are from a genuine error culture in Germany.

For a real error culture, we need more process management and more teamwork

At the end of the day - and this becomes all the more clear in the current situation - what counts are faster and better solutions. What is currently lacking is effective process management. For this, we need three things:

  1. clear goals
  2. stringent error management, and
  3. effective and agile decision-making and implementation processes.

However, we also need all parties to be willing to take responsibility for joint action and to stand behind joint decisions - quite simply, more teamwork in our government!


Professor Miriam Müthel

Professor Miriam Müthel holds the Chair of Organizational Behavior at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management. From 2014-2016, Professor Müthel was also a Network Fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, as well as a Visiting Scholar at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University in the 2016/2017 academic year. Her research addresses the intersection of leadership, ethics, and international management. Among other topics, she works on corporate response strategies to misconduct, dealing with one's own mistakes, and fostering positive cultures of error. Prof. Müthel teaches the subjects Business Ethics, Ethical Leadership and Organizational Behavior in the BSc, MSc and MBA programs at WHU. She also teaches the course "How to Create a Positive Error Culture" offered in the Executive Teaching programs at WHU.

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