The Secret to Effectively Managing Employee Mistakes

I will always remember an inspiring speech by Darrell, a CEO that I was coaching. The occasion was a ‘town hall’ for employees just after it was announced that he would be moving on to new pastures.

“Make mistakes”, he said.

“Just don’t let your mistakes be bigger than mine”

It is not often we hear a leader encourage his team to make mistakes, but Darrell knew that making mistakes was part of the business and that you should limit the size of your mistakes. Darrell’s leadership had created a culture of creativity and customer service, and many people openly wept on his last day.

A critical test for any leader is how they effectively manage employee mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable but your response to them will determine whether you enhance productivity and employee engagement or destroy moral.

A simple maxim for mistakes would be –

“Be tough on standards, be tender on people.”

Before I discuss how to implement this mindset, it is worth noting that we each have a default orientation towards completing tasks or developing relationships.

Are you more driven by a need to produce results, create structure, plan, and set goals?

Or are you more motivated to facilitate communication, focus on positive relationships, and have frequent team meetings?

Managing by Task or Relationship

Management research into the dichotomy between managing by task or relationship goes back to the 1940s. A common finding of the research is that relationship-oriented leadership will generate greater cohesion within groups, as well as greater team learning. It was also found that relationship-oriented leadership has a stronger individual impact and a positive effect on self-efficacy.

Later studies (Burke 2006) concluded that task-oriented leadership and relationship-oriented leadership produce a relatively similar perceived team effectiveness, however, actual team productivity was higher for relationship-oriented led teams than for task-oriented teams (a measured increase of 8% and 4% respectively).

The importance of focusing on relationships is further amplified when the manager can be substituted in contexts where people are exercising self-leadership. Individuals who are highly trained and capable, or those who have a need for independence, may not require that their leader focuses on task coordination.

Conversely, in times of crisis or uncertainty, or when people have little knowledge or experience, task orientation is necessary.

Managing Mistakes

Since we know that mistakes happen, and are part of learning, how should we best handle them?

Be tough on standards, be tender on people, means that when a mistake is made, we communicate the gap between person or team’s behavior and the standard you, as the leader, have set. We acknowledge the positive intention of people, but though empathetic inquiry as to how the intention fell short in execution.

Finding the gap between intention and execution enables people to self-correct and so relationships are strengthened and productivity is increased in the long run.

The conversation might go something like this:

Manager (Theresa): “Simon, it has come to my attention that your update to the requirement specifics in the software contained some errors, causing the operations team to waste time and resources as well as putting us behind schedule.”

Employee (Simon): “I’m sorry Theresa, I was focused on understanding each stakeholder's needs, and when I realized the deadline to update the specs I rushed and made some errors.”

Manager: “Simon, understanding stakeholder needs are important and I appreciate you focusing on that, but other people are depending on accurate input from you, what have you learned from this experience and what will you do differently moving forward?”

Employee: “Thanks, Theresa. Well, I have learned that I need to consider my work as part of a larger team. I could have communicated to you and the operations people that the assessment of stakeholders' needs was taking longer than expected and requested an extension.”

Manager: “Yes, Simon. We need your input to be accurate, so communicating you need time is an option. I appreciate your commitment to fully understanding stakeholder needs and will smooth things over with the operations folks. Will you apply the learning from this moving forward?”

Employee: “Yes, absolutely, you can count on me, Theresa”

Managing for Trust and Relationships

The conversation example is edited for simplicity but shows that as a leader or manager, you don’t compromise standards, nor do you compromise your belief that people can learn and grow.

Think about a mistake you have made in the past.

Did you learn from it?
Did you grow from it?
Are you likely to repeat it?

The same is likely true of your team. When you effectively handle a mistake, you will be building trust and loyalty.

"Mistakes are inevitable, destroying morale and relationships are not."

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