How do you handle the mistakes of others'?


Do you handle mistakes as an opportunity to coach your employees? That’s an easy question to ask but a hard thing to do when bad news reaches you. In the heat of battle, a more typical response is to make a sarcastic comment, yell your head off, or go huffing off in frustration. But how you handle mistakes is a key measure of your leadership maturity.
Employees watch what you say and do when you are under stress, and they use that as the real barometer of who you really are and what you really think. For example, one leader I know preaches teamwork and family atmosphere but when it hits the fan, she retreats to her office and avoids the team. Then she starts pulling her trusted advisors into her office, one at a time, to talk the situation over. There is no team discussion and the rest of the “family members” feel disenfranchised and resentful. This leader doesn’t realize she is creating a family atmosphere, all right—a dysfunctional family…the trusted versus the untrusted.
Then there is the happy-go-lucky leader, who has a sarcastic sense of humor and a funny nickname for everyone in the office…until a mistake is made, that is. The velvet glove comes off the knife and it goes right to the heart of anyone who screws up. Cursing, name calling and throwing things, tells everyone exactly what is under this happy veneer. As a result, most employees try to kid with him, get on his good side and generally avoid his wrath. They hide mistakes, and often don’t give him advanced warning on a big problem, in the hopes they can fix it before he finds out.
The bottom line is that no one purposely screws up. They have good intentions. They feel horrible about the mistake…so why would you blame someone for something they didn’t do intentionally? (Of course, if the mistakes are constant, you have to ask yourself, “Is she careless, or is she missing some information or training?”)
So what is the right approach? If your first reaction is anger, and your pattern is to make comments you regret later, your best response is to say nothing—at least until you cool off. And if you blast the person in front of others, you have multiplied the damage. You may think you are whipping them into shape but what is really happening is you are showing them you are a bully to be feared. Few people perform well for a bully, instead:
  • Focus immediately on asking the person what they are going to do to fix the problem.
  • Empower the person to fix the problem instead of doing it for him or her.
  • Then follow up to make sure it’s fixed.
For example, a few years ago, I was coaching a manager in the Underwriting Department of an insurance company. He thought he was providing great customer service to the agents who worked in his region. When they called to rant about a decision an underwriter made on a case, he marched right over to the underwriter, researched the case and then called the underwriter back with a decision; and most of the time the underwriter made the right one. The problem was that the underwriter now felt undermined and embarrassed. When he switched his approach, he still solved the problem but preserved the underwriter/agent relationship, and even strengthened the underwriter’s credibility. How? He simply told the agent that he would look into the issue and have the underwriter call him back.
Then the manager reviewed the case with the underwriter, shared his perspective, and when in doubt sided with the underwriter (who had a lot more history and data, in most cases). Putting the underwriter in charge of following up with the agent made a huge difference. Even if the decision was reversed, the underwriter could say, “After I reviewed the data you submitted, I can see your point,” which is far better than, “My boss reviewed this and changed the decision.”
Once you have cooled down, and the problem is fixed, you are wise if you circle back to the employee and say, “I know you feel badly about this—and obviously you didn’t do this on purpose—so what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” By switching into problem-solving mode with the employee—and acknowledging it wasn’t intentional-- he or she can stop kicking themselves and switch into prevention mode. This is a much healthier place to be, than in guilt mode. And this is where you win the respect and loyalty of your employee, because he or she wants to learn from this and never make this mistake again.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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