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How to Respond to Employee Mistakes

When someone comes to me with a problem, I often respond by saying, “The measure of the person is: what are you going to do about it? It doesn’t matter what ‘it’ is. What matters is what you are going to do about it.” 

I used that line for years until someone replied: “I love that Martin Luther King, Jr. quote as well.” So of course I had to look it up: 

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. 

This is clearly much better than my butchered version of it! That being said, I stand by the intent of my statement. As leaders, our role is not to criticize and react to mistakes that our employees make. Our role is to consider why they did it and what they did next.   

Were they embarrassed or apathetic?

The most effective work cultures embrace the fact that mistakes are inevitable. If an employee is embarrassed about a mistake, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. This embarrassment shows care and concern which, in turn, will (hopefully) prevent the mistake from occurring again. It is important to help your employee resolve and accept the mistake, and then move on.

On the other hand, if an employee is indifferent about the mistake, this might represent a real concern. Provided that they’re not simply unconcerned about their work, they likely don’t understand the implications of what they did. They are assigning a different meaning to their mistake than you are – and that’s an issue of communication. Look at this as an opportunity for educating them on the bigger-picture repercussions their error had the potential to produce. 

Did they learn from the mistake or just hope that it doesn’t happen again?

While mistakes can be costly to a company, there is value in the lesson learned. If an employee has taken the mistake to heart and has taken steps to avoid making it again, treat it as a development opportunity. There is a lesson behind every mistake. Sometimes, however, we need to help our employees identify it.

Mistakes are an inevitable consequence of growth, of moving beyond our comfort zone. As a result, we discover more effective ways of completing work tasks. You’ll derive significant value when you choose to reframe “mistakes” as opportunities:

  • To discern innovative work habits 
  • To explain steps to take in a project
  • To predict outcomes in tasks
  • To provide better directions on how to complete a task. 

Whatever the nature of the mistake, if the employee simply hopes it doesn’t happen again, it’s quite possible that they don’t understand how it happened (or have only a foggy idea). Errors in isolation are easy to identify, but all too often, it’s terribly difficult to retrace our steps to find precisely where an error occurred. We know something went awry, somewhere, but pinning it down doesn’t seem possible. This becomes your chance to help your employee locate where in the process they went astray. 

Did they try to hide the mistake or take ownership of it?

Good employees take accountability for their mistakes. If an employee hides the mistake or (worse yet) places blame on others, the root of the issue isn’t the mistake itself, but rather the lack of accountability. And that must be addressed. 

Employees need a work environment comfortable enough to admit to their errors so that they can get back to being productive. If they fear reprisals, if they worry that being honest with you will lead to feeling blamed as being, if they panic that they’ll be terminated for their mistake… they are more apt to try to hide their mistake. And that speaks volumes about what you need to change on your end.

You want your employees to keep striving to improve, to continue to expand their skills and improve the quality of their work. No one wants to stagnate, to stop trying because they fear getting into trouble. Moreover, don’t assume an employee doesn’t feel terrible about their mistake if they’re not vocal about it. We are often harder on ourselves than anyone else could ever be.

Acknowledge similarities with your employee, remembering that you, too, are imperfect and a fallible human. This provides a nice way to address a common yet unspoken assumption that a “superior” wouldn’t make such a mistake – an assumption that creates walls between managers and employees. Focus on understanding the situation as they see it.

No one is immune from mistakes. We make thousands of choices daily, and will slip up in those decisions. Studies show the on-the-job human error rate: 

  • 1 error in 10 tasks for complicated non-routine tasks
  • 1 error in 100 tasks for routine tasks with care needed

Add stress into the mix (and who isn’t immune from personal and circumstantial stress?) and the failure rate for complicated non-routine tasks rises to 25 errors per 100 tasks. 

As leaders, we need to expect that our employees will make mistakes – and prepare to respond appropriately. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, we all have the ability to control how we react during “times of challenge and controversy.”

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