Working in a Team: Dealing with Employee Mistakes

We’ve written blogs on how to deliver feedback, but what precedes it are often employee mistakes. When you’re managing a team, chances are you’ll be dealing with people who are new to the role, and in some cases, mistakes can happen. In fact, an average employee makes 118 mistakes at work per year.

The best companies don’t have flawless employees; they have a process in place that effectively deals with mistakes. As a leader and manager, the way you handle errors can change another’s experience with the company and how likely they are to come to you for help or ideas. Therefore, the difference between scared and despondent employees vs. receptive and enthusiastic ones is critical to your success.

Remember that mistakes can be invaluable opportunities too. Letting your emotions get the best of you and giving unnecessarily harsh discipline can lead to poor consequences. Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions, reminds us that “Managers need to remember that employees join companies, but they quit managers.”

Looking at the Full Picture

Before you make snap judgements and assumptions, take a step back to see if there’s a reason why the mistake was made. Is it truly a one-time lapse in judgment, or is there something more going on that will only lead to more problems in the future? The 5 Whys technique was developed by the founder of Toyota. It aims to find the deeper reasons why mistakes happen in the company, pointing to a process that is missing or not working well, not at a person. Let’s look at an example:

Problem: Team Member A’s client is refusing to pay for the posters you printed for them. Why?

  • The delivery was late so the posters couldn’t have been used for their intended purpose. Why?
  • Printing the design on the shirts took longer than expected. Why?
  • We ran out of ink. Why?
  • The ink was recently used on a large, rushed order. Why?
  • There wasn’t enough ink in stock, and the order that was made when the lack of stock was noticed couldn’t arrive in time.

Solution: Find a supplier who can deliver on a short notice to better respond to customer demand.

This method can give you more insight into why a misstep happened. And in this case, there were factors beyond your team member’s control. Other times, it’s not an inventory issue but maybe another team member that didn’t fulfill their responsibilities. Take some time to look at what is contributing to the mistake, so you don’t have the same problem happen again.

Thinking Ahead

So, you’ve figured out what the issue is and might have fixed it, but how do you move past it?

Regular coaching. Don’t wait for problems to build up. Feedback about job performance, behaviors and attitudes should occur regularly. This way, you’re able to correct behaviour and clarify information more frequently.

Ask future focused questions. “What were you thinking?” is a past-focused question. It forces your team member to reinforce their mistake and makes them sound defensive. Asking thoughtful questions like “If we did this again, what could we have done differently?” and “How could I have supported you better?” can help you explore their side of the situation so that you can both effectively address the mistake together.

Revisit your hiring practices. Employees make mistakes, but there is a difference between a mistake and being unsuited for the job. Poor hiring practices lead to bad fits and poor performance. Assessing your candidate’s skill level before making a hiring decision can help prevent mistakes. For example, pre-employment aptitude tests on attention to detail or how they learn and use new information can help you prevent careless errors.

Mistakes aren’t fun but they can be an important teaching moment. Practicing the proper caution helps you prevent demoralization, and approaching it the right way helps your team members learn how to fill their roles in the company better.