What's Your Response to Employee Mistakes?
I learned early on in my leadership career that the environment I work in was just as important to me as the type of work I was doing. I had been in jobs that just never felt right, and couldn’t quite understand why I was struggling to be happy. Then an interview candidate asked me to describe our organization’s culture. I paused as I considered how to respond. I liked the people I worked with, and I liked the type of work I was doing, but felt there was something even more important that was missing – a culture of trust and caring.
It wasn’t until that moment that I was able to put my finger on the problem. I realized that our off-site executive team did not understand the nuances of the day to day operations, and didn’t seem to care about the employees they had working for them. When performance results were lacking, or a mistake was made, their first response was to discipline or even terminate the employee. There was no support given to provide performance coaching to team members. The employees, including myself, felt our jobs were in jeopardy if something went wrong. This resulted in a culture where employees had the attitude of “I need to protect my job, even at the expense of my coworker". There was a culture of fear; fear of making a mistake, fear of consequences, fear of termination. There was no team atmosphere, morale was low, and turnover was excessive.
Leaders need to strive hard to build a culture of trust. Mistakes will happen, and how a leader responds will be the indicator of what kind of culture that leader is trying to build. If you reprimand, belittle, make assumptions, or repeatedly bring up past mistakes when missteps happen, employees will not take risks. Without risk, there is no innovation.
Think back to the last time an employee on your team made a mistake or made a bad decision. How did you respond? The best approach is to assume nothing. When an error in judgment happens, the conversation needs to start with genuine interest in gathering the information about what happened. Ask open-ended questions and summarize what you’ve heard to make sure you’ve understood correctly. Here is how that conversation might look:
Manager: Hi Susan. Thanks for meeting with me this morning. Do you know why I wanted to speak with you?
Susan: Is it because of the decision I made to approve vacation time for four employees on the same day?
Manager: Yes, that’s right. I just want to find out a little more about what happened, so we can get to the root cause, and find out if there’s an opportunity to improve our processes to make sure this type of thing doesn’t happen again. Could you walk me through what transpired?
Susan: Well, I was given two time off requests last week, and when I looked at the staffing schedule, I could see we had enough coverage, so I approved them. I didn’t realize at that time that the other supervisor also got two requests around the same time. I got busy working on some other projects, and forgot to discuss this with the other supervisors. By the time I put these requests into the schedule, I could see that we were going to be leaving ourselves short of employees.
Manager: So it seems that this situation was the result of a communication gap between supervisors. Is that correct?
Susan: I think both communication and time management were issues, to be honest.
Manager: Okay. That happens sometimes. What could we do differently to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
In the above example, the manager only seeks clarification on the events, without judgment. This is done through asking questions and restating what she heard. When there is a culture of accountability, the employee will own their mistake, particularly when they are confident that mistakes aren’t always met with disciplinary action. The manager also gives an opportunity for the employee to provide a solution, which will build confidence and valuable problem solving skills in the employee.
Next time an employee makes a mistake, think about how best to respond. It could be the perfect opportunity to promote a culture of accountability, learning, and trust.
Melissa Ketler (BA, MA) is an Organizational Leadership Consulting at Fox & Owl Consulting, who published a Master’s thesis on organizational continuity and succession planning, and has over 20 years of organizational team leadership experience. For more information on Team Building, Leadership, and Culture Development, contact us at email@example.com to find out how Fox & Owl Consulting can strengthen your organization.
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