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How effective leaders respond when employees make mistakes

Alesia Latson

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How effective leaders respond when employees make mistakes


Section 1: Hiring and retaining talent

Section 2: Employee compensation and motivation

Section 3: Employee processes/managing employees

How effective leaders respond when employees make mistakes

By Alesia Latson

Disappointment is inevitable for leaders. At times, your employees will disappoint you, and at other times you will disappoint them. The fact that disappointment occurs isn’t the challenge; the real issue is how you respond to it. Unfortunately, far too many leaders react to disappointment with anger and punishment.

You’ve likely seen the scenario: An employee loses a key client or misses an important deadline, and the leader responds by demoting or firing the employee, removing responsibility, taking away their vacation time or taking other punitive actions.

Such consequences are really nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction — and a missed opportunity to shine. In reality, how you handle disappointment speaks volumes about your leadership style and your credibility in your organization. To make the most of a disappointing situation and use it as a coaching opportunity, consider the following suggestions.

Manage yourself before you confront the employee. Before talking with the employee about the disappointing situation, you first have to manage yourself. You have to be clear about what your intention is for the conversation. You are in a position of authority — what you say during these moments will have a ripple effect.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you aren’t justified in your dissatisfaction. You most certainly are. However, your expression of those feelings has an impact on how others view you and on how the employee will perform in the future.

So before initiating the conversation, take some time to step back and get clear about what result you want from the meeting. Are you simply looking to vent your anger? Is the goal finding a solution to rectify the current circumstances? Or do you really want to help the employee learn and grow from the situation?

Assess your role in the disappointment. Take some time to reflect on your role in the disappointment. Before you declare, “I did nothing; it was entirely the other person’s fault,” realize that as a leader, you are ultimately responsible for your staff.

So ask yourself, “What role did I play?” and “How did I contribute to this disappointment?” Perhaps you didn’t give the employee enough training. Maybe you threw them into a situation they were too “green” to handle. Whatever the disappointing outcome was, chances are you had some role in it — even if it’s a small one. Acknowledge that prior to your conversation.

Assume good intent. Take the stance that the employee didn’t intentionally let you down, and it takes the edge off your anger. In the majority of cases, that stance is absolutely accurate — the employee didn’t set out to cause harm. They simply made a mistake or a bad judgment call, which resulted in a less-than-ideal situation.

Additionally, realize the employee knows they messed up, and they’ve probably already given themselves a thorough thrashing and are terrified to speak with you. Therefore, any anger you display will be mild compared to what they’ve already dished out to themselves.

However, true anger should be reserved for the most egregious acts, for example, if there’s been an intentional violation of an important principle. When talking to the employee, focus on the disappointment in terms of the outcome, not the person.

Successful schoolteachers know that when you discipline a student, you focus on the behavior, not the child. The same approach is best for business leaders.

Even if the letdown occurred because the employee was negligent in some way, you need to separate what happened from the employee personally. State your disappointment in terms of the outcome, and then explore with the employee the cause in an inquisitive and coaching way rather than a punitive way.

Why? Because when employees feel punished or scolded, they become fearful, which decreases creativity and innovation on the job — the exact things you often need to rectify a disappointing situation.

Learn from disappointments. It’s human nature to lash out when upset. But remember, how you handle disappointment reflects more on you as a leader than on the person who caused the situation. The majority of disappointing moments are actually coaching moments in disguise. Savvy leaders recognize this and make the most of these situations.

If you want to be viewed as a leader with courage, credibility and reason, use the suggestions here the next time you feel the need to punish an employee for a wrongdoing. When you do, you won’t be disappointed in the results.


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