How Can You Handle Mistakes Effectively?



In our last blog post, Who Doesn’t Make Mistakes?, we learned that a leader sets the tone as to the kind of feedback that will be provided to employees when they make mistakes. Therefore, an effective leader should handle mistakes after understanding the impact it can have on the employees.

Now, let’s examine the types of feedback a manager might provide when an employee makes a mistake that impacts the outcome of the team’s project:

  1. Ignore it and hope it will not be repeated.
  2. Ignore it as long as it is not visible and the impact is minimal.
  3. Give a warning only the first time the mistake is made.
  4. Give continual warnings until the impact is too high or too visible.
  5. Allow three strikes and then, out of frustration, blast the employee.
  6. Make a big deal in front of the whole team so everyone learns not to repeat that kind of mistake.
  7. Conduct a group analysis to examine what went wrong and why the mistake was made.
  8. Sit down with the employee and analyze together what went wrong and get a commitment that the mistake will not be repeated.
  9. Sit down with the employee and analyze together what went wrong, and then present to the team the lesson learned.

One may say that all the above approaches are acceptable or proper ways to handle mistakes. I beg to differ. I find that only the last two approaches allow organizations to improve with time.

Malcolm Gladwell said, in one of his outstanding speeches at Highpoint University in North Carolina, that experts make big mistakes while incompetent people make insignificant mistakes because they are incompetent. Note though, that even the most trusted expert in your organization started as an incompetent beginner. Learning from his mistakes allowed him to become an expert. Now making a significant mistake as an expert is quite another issue, to be addressed in another blog post.

What would be your best option?

Your day-to-day interactions are most likely with ordinary employees who, like everyone else, may make mistakes once in awhile. So, if you want to allow incompetency to prevail, approaches 1–5 will assist you.

If you want people to be scared of responsibility, engage in analysis by paralysis, or throw every decision back in your lap, choose approach #6.

If you’d like your team to have a better understanding of how things work and what leads to more successful results, use either approach #8 or #9. When deciding which of these two tactics to use, consider whether exposing the mistake in front of the group could cause more harm to the future performance of the employee; if so, approach #8 might be the better choice.

Did I just ignore approach #7? Nope.

Sometimes, you need to make critical and immediate decisions. In such cases, a team effort is required without delay. Note that this approach requires a heavy dose of facilitation while focusing on facts and not on emotions. The last thing you want to do is to place blame on someone in a public setting when the analysis of the causes is incomplete.

What would it take for you to transform your organization’s culture into one that encourages learning from mistakes?

If you are struggling to address employees or handle mistakes that are being made, call us at (732)385-1522. Our certified coaches will be work with you and find a solution.