Great Managers Are Always Nice by Chip Averwater

Chapter 14

Dealing with Mistakes

We have to expect mistakes; nobody is perfect.

Insisting on perfection is usually counterproductive. When employees are afraid to make mistakes, they work slowly and don’t attempt new methods or skills. Allowing enough latitude to make occasional mistakes promotes learning, innovation, ingenuity, and confidence.

Nevertheless, as managers, our reaction to a mistake is often frustration, followed by wondering (hopefully not aloud), “What the hell was she thinking?” or “How could he be so dumb?”

Our employees are seldom as dumb as a mistake makes them seem. However obvious a mistake may be after the fact, the choices that led to it typically were not. Often, we would have made the same choice in similar circumstances.

If we summarily blame an employee for a mistake without allowing them to explain, we risk our relationship with them—they rarely forget our misjudgment of them. Neither an apology nor time makes up for it.

Some mistakes don’t need to be addressed. The employee knows what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. Elaborating on the obvious would only create embarrassment and resentment. Our team members recognize and appreciate benign inattention when appropriate.

If we have to acknowledge an error, we can express confidence in the employee’s ability to fix it.

M:  We all make mistakes. I’m sure you can take care of it.

But many other mistakes do require our guidance. Sometimes the mistake isn’t apparent, the solution isn’t obvious, there are consequences and repercussions the team member isn’t aware of, etc.

We should keep in mind that mistakes are unintentional—the team member was trying to do his job correctly and simply made an error. Our purpose isn’t to assign blame or to scold, but to help the employee recognize the mistake, what caused it, and how to prevent it in the future.

Mike’s format for dealing with mistakes is to indicate he noticed, ask how it happened, check whether the damage has been corrected, ask for a plan to avoid future occurrences, and offer encouragement.

First Mistake

During his daily rounds, Mike talks to Will about a package Will shipped to the wrong customer.

M:  Will, I heard we had a mix-up in shipping.

W:  Yes, unfortunately I….

M:  OK, we all make mistakes. How did it happen?

W:  I guess I just….

M:  I see. How will you fix it?

W:  I’ve already…. And I’ll….

M:  Sounds good. And how can you prevent that mistake in the future?

W:  I’m going to double-check....

M:  Sounds like you’ve got this, Will. Let me know if I can help.

Allowing the team member to fix his mistake and asking for his plan for preventing it in the future keeps the responsibility with him and conveys respect and trust.

If the problem recurs in a short time, Mike confirms that the team member understands how the mistake is occurring, ensures the damage is corrected, and... Great Managers Are Always Nice