Early in my career I was a company newsletter editor. I managed a small team of writers, oversaw design and layout, and worked with a printer to produce and distribute the weekly publication to over 150,000 employees. (This was back in the day when people actually got hard copy newsletters.)
After a late night of last-minute revisions and layout problems on the latest edition, I arrived to work the next day and opened my batch of newsletters – only to see a glaring error in the top headline. The headline was about the Public Service Commission, except there was no L in Public! If I hadn’t been so mortified, I probably would have laughed out loud. Staring at this huge typo, a million questions flooded my brain. “Am I seeing what I’m seeing? How did I miss this? How can I face my boss and his boss and explain this? Could I get fired for this? How did this happen?”
The reality is mistakes happen. It’s what you do after the mistake that really matters, whether it’s your own mistake or that of someone on your team. The poet Nikki Giovanni said, “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to error that counts.”
In my case, I took a few deep breaths, settled my nerves, and headed right over to my boss’s office to alert him to the error and apologize for the mistake. While my boss was pretty gruff and impatient, we had a good relationship. He was not happy about the error, needless to say, but he was actually very understanding. He saw how upset I was and told me that it was OK – and he even made me laugh about the jokes that would follow from readers. We quickly discussed a plan for communicating to the higher ups and issuing a lighthearted and somewhat cheeky correction in the next issue.
With a different manager, that conversation could have gone very differently. I have had managers who lambasted me for mistakes, kept harping on past failures while barely noting current successes, and micromanaged their way to a “mistake-free” workplace. What those managers did not understand is the damage they caused in their reaction to mistakes and failures. They stifled creativity, shut down risk-taking, damaged trust, and sunk morale. In each of those cases, I got away from those managers as soon as I could.
So, when someone on your team makes a mistake, here are some tips for handling it well:
- Put it in perspective – Has the mistake created a crisis? Probably not. Most of us are not dealing with life-or-death situations. Even if it is a disastrous mistake, is it really as detrimental as you are making it out to be? When speaking with your team member, share the gravity of the mistake (if it is consequential) AND put it in perspective. Like me with my headline error, chances are your team member is feeling much worse about the mistake than you are.
- Collaborate on a plan forward – Ask your team member what they propose to address the error. Coach them toward a strong resolution by asking questions, offering input, and being much more supportive than directive.
- Debrief to understand – Once a plan forward is in place, take a look back with your team member and identify where things may have gone awry. This is not in order to place blame, but rather to identify any process revisions or improvements needed, or any development needed for the team member.
- Look at communication – Many mistakes stem from a lack of communication. For example, one of my coaching clients recently dealt with an employee’s error on a customer report. In discussing what took place, my client realized that, in her rush to get the report done, she failed to provide the context and purpose of the report with the team member, leading to a misunderstanding and error.
- Cool down – If you are angry or very frustrated about a mistake, take a minute before talking to your team member. Step away, breathe, and center yourself for a more productive (and less damaging) conversation. Team members should not fear your reaction to a mistake. If they do, they’ll probably do their best to hide it.
- Emphasize the learning – There’s a saying that “Mistakes are the seeds from which trees of knowledge grow.” I believe that wholeheartedly. Much learning comes from trying, failing, making mistakes, and making mistakes again. Make sure to draw out the lessons from a mistake and help others on the team learn from the mistake as well (again, without blaming).
- Make it OK to make mistakes – Perfectionism is detrimental to growth. If your team members believe that they can never get anything wrong, then they will operate with great caution, take no risks, and not trust themselves and/or others. You will not get the best of what they can bring to your team and your results.
Mistakes happen. It’s how you react to mistakes and what you do after that that makes the difference between a learning opportunity and a recipe for a terrible work environment.
How do you handle mistakes on your team?
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For guidance in turning mistakes into positive outcomes, contact Robyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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