How to Handle Mistakes, from "Great Managers Are Always Nice" by Chip Averwater

Chapter 14

Managing 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 employees enough latitude to make occasional mistakes promotes learning, innovation, ingenuity, and confidence.

Nevertheless, when managing mistakes our reaction 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 an employee 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 that his plan to avoid it is viable.


Repetition of a Mistake

A week later Mike hears another package was shipped to the wrong destination.

M:  Will, did we have another mis-shipment?

W:  Yes, I’m sorry, Mike.

M:  How did it happen?

W:  Well, I just got in a hurry and didn’t check....

M:  Have you straightened it out with the customer?

W:  Yes, I....

M:  Do you think your plan is enough to head off the problem in the future?

W:  It should be. I just have to follow it.

M:  OK. Anyone can make a mistake; we just have to learn from them, so we don’t repeat them.

W:  Thanks, Mike. I’ll get it right.

M:  You can do it, Will. I believe in you.


If the team member continues to make similar mistakes, we have to consider whether he’s right for the job.

By now, the team member should realize his performance isn’t adequate, and an open and honest dialogue about it sometimes comes as a relief.


Multiple Repetitions of a Mistake

After several shipments to wrong customers, Mike has a private conversation with Will.

M:  Will, I know you’re trying and I can tell you’re frustrated. Have you considered that this job might not be a match for what you’re best at?

W:  What do you mean?

M:  Every person is by nature good at some things, but no one is good at everything. The key to success is finding and doing what you do well.

W:  Are you saying I can’t do this job?

M:  I don’t know that for sure but if it were true, it wouldn’t reflect poorly on you. It’s just part of the process of finding what’s right for you.

W:  But I like this job and I need the money.

M:  I understand. But what about the work itself? Do you enjoy it? Or does it frustrate you? In the long run, we’re better off...


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Dealing with Mistakes, Great Managers Are Always Nice
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