No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes. 

– William E. Gladstone

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Recently, a client shared that she had lost her cool with an employee who had demonstrated poor judgment in navigating the resolution of a situation.  This particular employee found her manager’s response to the mistake so demoralizing, it was hard for her to move forward.  My client wanted to know how she could repair the situation and relationship, realizing she had responded harshly. 


This is a common scenario.  Mistakes are inevitable.  Managers get angry and disappointed when bad decisions are made under their watch.  So how do leaders respond to mistakes in a way that promotes learning and maintains the relationship, while also holds people accountable for their behavior?  How do we strike the right tone of being firm and clear, without promoting further shame, disengagement or antipathy?Here are some ideas on how to hold people accountable while also creating a climate that promotes learning, innovation and psychological safety. 

1.)  Take time to cool down before speaking with the employee.  This one feels rather obvious, but in today’s “always on” environment, it’s too easy to hit send on a terse email or text.  When we have a sudden flood of angry emotion, we call this an ‘amygdala hijack’; our emotional brain is surging out of control and we do not have access to our highest reasoning capacities.  It is exactly when we feel most out of control that we need to practice restraint; take a walk around the block, follow your breath for a few minutes, label the exact emotion you feel, and/ or call someone you trust to walk yourself down from the cliff.   Most situations can tolerate a space of an hour between the stimulus and our response.  

2.)  Ask employee for their perspective on what happened first.   Before you bite someone’s head off, it’s helpful to ask about the other person’s take on what occurred in a situation and what assumptions and motivations were guiding their actions.  There may be a very good explanation for the “mistake” which may shift a chiding conversation to an appreciative perspective.   Let the other person go first and listen to gain new insight.

3.)  Focus factually on the behavior and impact of employee’s behavior.  The Situation-Behavior-Impact model is a helpful framework for managers to use when there is a breakdown, as it requires that you focus on the unproductive behavior and negative impact it caused versus the person’s character or skills overall.   

4.)  Apologize if you have lost your cool or feel that you have made a mistake that has hurt trust or relationship.  So often, leaders assume they need be perfect, and that admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness. There could be nothing farther from the truth.  Admitting mistakes demonstrates maturity, confidence and a reflective nature.  It shows that we are all ‘works in progress’ and that the relationship with the individual matters more to the leader than being right. 

5.)  Express confidence in the employee’s ability to handle the situation going forward.  When you have overall confidence in someone that has made an honest mistake, it can be valuable to hold out a positive, self-fulfilling prophecy for what will happen in the future.  Whether a true incident or fictional story, I fondly think of the story of the test pilot who crashed a plane due to a mechanic’s fueling error.  Upon safely conducting an emergency landing, the p later shook the mechanic’s hand and asked him to be the one to refuel his plane tomorrow; he told the mechanic:  

    “There isn’t a man alive who hasn’t made a mistake. But I’m positive you’ll never make this mistake again. That’s why I want to make sure that you’re the only one to refuel my plane tomorrow. I won’t let anyone else on the field touch it.”

 Generally, we are so hard enough on ourselves, we don’t need to put the dagger any deeper what is likely already a self inflicted wound. 

6.)  Be clear on which mistakes are blameworthy and praiseworthy.  Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, has done extensive research on teams and also failure and innovation.  She has contributed an illustrative spectrum of mistakes which are “blameworthy” on one side and “praiseworthy” on the other.  This is a helpful diagram to study when you are trying to make sense of what kind of mistake it is and where the particular breakdown fits.  Did the individual knowingly deviate from the prescribed practice in this case?  Was it a lack of individual attention?  Or, is there an issue with the internal process, with either too much complexity and/or a lack of clear guidelines?  On the other side of the spectrum, was the individual testing a plausible hypothesis that could lead to learning and innovation?   Analyzing the kinds of mistakes coming up can help you spot what is more an individual performance issue versus a broader organizational or systems challenge that needs attention. 

 

Bottom line; leaders’ mistakes in handling mistakes can be more damaging to people and cultures than the initial mistakes by employees.   These critical moments deserve careful thought and attention, as they are opportunities where we either gain or lose peoples’ confidence, faith and loyalty.