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One of your employees screwed up. Here’s how to handle the situation without killing morale

Instead of calling out a teammate for dropping the ball, frame the discussion as a renewed opportunity or second chance.

One of your employees screwed up. Here’s how to handle the situation without killing morale
[Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock]
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I’ve learned a few times in my career that words matter. In fact, it once happened at work during an exit interview.

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“I don’t feel the great culture others do because my boss can be really sharp and it makes things uncomfortable,” the employee, who had quit for another job, told me. When I asked what “sharp” meant, the exiting employee said that after he made a mistake, he got a short email that said, “You forgot to do this thing. You need to do it now. Why did you do this?

I put those words in italics because they’re the exact same ones I had sent to the employee’s supervisor a few weeks earlier. Not only had I made a mistake, I set a bad example that had real consequences. In this case, we lost an employee we should have kept (and probably could have if I had paid attention to how I actually behaved).

However, the real test for our organization, and me, came next: How would I handle the mistake I’d just made? How a company handles mistakes is a measure of an organization’s cultural health. Will a culture favor looking good instead of taking risks that pay off down the road? Will a team learn of problems while we still have time to fix them or only during an exit interview, when it’s too late? What kind of people do we want to be?

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As a manager and a dad, I admit I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve also learned a lot about how to recover from them and, most importantly, avoid screwing up to begin with. Here are six tips for rebuilding your organization’s culture when someone messes up.

Provide slack

If you’re the one who made a mistake, don’t beat yourself up by calling yourself names and chastising yourself that “you should have known better.” Remember, everyone, including yourself and other leaders, has good days and bad days. How you react to others starts with how you treat yourself. Don’t lower your bar on performance, but cut yourself some slack when you inevitably blunder—when you catch yourself moving a little too fast or you try something new and find you bungled your first try.

Don’t start with an accusatory “why”

When someone screws up, immediately demanding an explanation of them is a surefire way to trigger their defensiveness. “Why did you do that” is what I say to my 4-year-old when she swears in preschool.

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Try opening a conversation instead with “Tell me what happened,” and you’ll find that you defuse tension and get a clearer understanding of the facts, as well as what went wrong. Instead of jumping to conclusions, opt to listen and then ask questions with curiosity before settling on an opinion.

Respond in the context of a missed opportunity

To avoid repeat mistakes, you might think it’s smart to tell the colleague who goofed, “You should have done X” or “Next time do Y.”

I’ve found it’s more productive to phrase your advice like this: “We missed an opportunity here to do X” or “Next time this comes up, we have the opportunity to do Y.”  This subtle change focuses the conversation on the bigger picture, not the individual mistake. It’s also a forward-looking, positive spin that will motivate versus reprimand.

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Institute a “no surprises” rule

Surprise mistakes are the worst. Someone did something wrong but chose not to tell anyone out of carelessness, fear, or both. Caught off-guard, you have a tougher time reacting with compassion, as well as framing things positively. You also now distrust the individual who surprised you because you wonder what else they might be hiding. But when handled well—mistakes are just a cost of doing business. Your staff needs to know they can (and should) promptly bring mistakes to their managers so they can be handled with understanding.

Lead with compassion

Fear can be a short-term motivator, but you don’t need to be a bully to succeed. If you are clear with expectations and help people understand where they stand (including if their job is in jeopardy), you can still be empathetic and compassionate. Chances are this is who you would prefer to be rather than a scolding parent or a sharp-tongued boss. Your colleagues will still sometimes blow it. But if you embrace your better angels, the number of mistakes will start to go down because those around you want to do a better job for themselves and you.

Finally, set boundaries on chances

First, make sure the mistake-maker sees any patterns in their behavior and have them come up with a plan they think might address it. Second, try to provide coaching or professional development to help reduce those mistakes. Third, decide how many strikes you’re okay with and, in order to maintain performance standards and overall morale, let repeat offenders go once they exceed that number. And keep records along the way so if your interventions don’t work, you have the facts and won’t be acting arbitrarily and unfairly.

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Despite the frustration they can bring, mistakes are miniature moments of truth. When your staff knows they messed up, they’re vulnerable. But if you treat their vulnerability with respect, you will create psychological safety, which improves company performance. And I can tell you from my own experience that without it, problems get hidden and go unsolved; your people focus on looking good instead of being good; and the culture you want is damaged or destroyed.

The next time someone on your team makes a mistake—pause and take a breath before you cut loose.


Ethan Karp is an expert in transforming companies and communities. As CEO and president of nonprofit consulting group MAGNET, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, he has helped hundreds of companies grow through technology, innovation, and talent.