When Employees Screw Up, Don’t Screw Up Your Response

A healthy organization allows people to own up to their mistakes.

If there is one thing employees fear at work, it’s being shamed for the mistakes they make. Few things are worse than the sting of rejection that comes from being called out on slip-ups. It can have 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 own mistakes.

When that happens, your employees and your organization stop learning. This can impact attrition, your ability to meet goals, and even 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 previously have been trusting. 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, and there is almost never enough praise in organizations.

Listen and ask to understand. When someone makes a mistake, ask them questions and listen to their answers. Blowing up at them certainly won’t give them the confidence to tell you the next time they blunder. Listening and asking questions is kind and respectful, and it will open people up to learning more about what they did and why they did it, thus preventing more such mistakes in the future.

Help them get through the problem. Show compassion for those who admit 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 a problem and then help them get through it? Consider training, coaching, or even your Employee Assistance Program for those who own up to their mistakes.

Offer encouragement 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.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive consulting firm.