Making mistakes okay

If there is one thing that employees fear at work, it’s feeling shamed for mistakes they make. There is very little that is worse than feeling the sting of rejection from being called out on slip-ups. It can be a big deal that has a negative effect on someone’s performance and life for a very long time. And when others see someone else shamed, it makes them less likely to admit their mistakes.

When that happens, your employees and your organization stop learning. This can impact attrition, meeting goals, and the bottom line.

So consider some ways to make it safe for people to own up to their mistakes, while continuing to learn and grow:

Praise publicly, correct privately: This timeless advice remains true and effective. As a leader, once you “call out” someone publicly for a mistake they’ve made, you’ve lost control of a culture that may have been trusting previously. And it will take a very long time to get trust back. And don’t forget to look for and call out the things employees are doing well; people will respond positively to that, and there is almost never enough praise in organizations.

Listen and ask to understand: When someone makes a mistake, ask them questions and listen more than you ever thought you could. Blowing up at them certainly won’t help them to feel safe to tell you the next time they blunder. Listening and asking questions is kind and respectful, and it will open them up to learning more about what they did and why they did it, thus preventing more mistakes in the future.

Help them get through it: Call up some compassion for those who are admitting their errors; they likely feel badly about what happened. You have good people working for you, so why wouldn’t you thank them for letting you know about their error and then offer something that will help them get through it? Consider training, coaching, or even your Employee Assistance Program to those who own up to their mistakes.

Encourage and support: When you ask someone to do something out of their comfort zone or beyond their current level of expertise, don’t leave them to their own devices to get it done. Whatever they need in terms of support to bust through the risk they feel should be provided – whether it’s frequent meetings with you, a mentor, or connections with others who can help. Help them to feel like you have their back, and they’ll continue to thrive in this unfamiliar territory.

You can’t afford to have an organization that is unwilling to report mistakes to you. Treat people who make errors with respect and kindness and they’ll continue to learn while you’ll continue to be kept informed.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

2 comments on “Making mistakes okay

  1. Don’t be afraid to learn from their error or perceived error. I have found some the best, most creative solutions were not the way I would have done it. Most often those ideas come from those who don’t know it can’t, shouldn’t or just isn’t done that way.

  2. Excellent thoughts Curt, and great advice to those who aspire to be the best leaders they can be. Thanks.

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