Archives for category: Mistakes

This year’s Oscars and the Best Picture mix-up gave me the perfect excuse to explore one of my favourite topics – how humans make mistakes and why we so often, fail to prevent them.

As everyone not currently living in a jungle without access to electronic media knows, the wrong movie was announced for best picture because the wrong envelope was given to presenter Warren Beatty.

It seems so simple – a distracted PwC representative (and who wouldn’t be in that environment) hands the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty. Simple human error, right? Shoot the perpetrator and move on… Yes and no.

When something like this happens, the media (and many of us) howl for someone’s head because – we collectively wonder – “How could they stuff up so badly?”

The more spectacular the mistake, the more vengeance that is demanded and despite living in the Internet age and considering ourselves socially evolved, many still want blood in some form when someone makes a mistake, commits a crime or causes an accident. (Just listen to the fans at a sports event when the umpire gets a decision wrong!)

The urge to punish, harks back to the beginning of human history and is demonstrated by the masses that until relatively recently in our history, would come out to witness witch burnings, beheadings or hangings, regardless of whether the ‘guilty’ person was in fact guilty.

The problem is that while vengeance or punishment might be satisfying and can have a damping effect on the intentional violation of rules, (although if it was really effective we would have no-one in prison) it is entirely ineffective in preventing mistakes.

Mistakes are a normal result of the limitations of human cognition. We all make mistakes. Mistakes come in many forms but essentially, are an unintended outcome from a specific action.

So can we prevent mistakes? No – and anyone who tells you otherwise, does not understand human cognitive limits and the behaviour that can follow.

It is quite simply impossible to create a mistake-free world, but we can do a pretty good job of preventing mistakes from having a negative outcome, by creating systems and processes that trap them. It is in this that PwC seems to have failed spectacularly. How?

For convenience, they had a system of duplicate envelopes with the details of the winners in each category and this allowed presenters to enter from different sides of the stage, presumably to make the flow on and off stage, more efficient.

However, this was such an obvious opportunity for error to creep in, it should have been held in check by a protective system – perhaps something as simple as disposal of the spare envelopes, following the announcement of each category. Had this happened, no amount of distraction would have caused the eventual chaos and embarrassment that occurred, and the PwC representatives would not have to be in hiding…

So, as we slowly put down the flaming torches and pitchforks, it might be helpful to work out where the human error sequence actually began. After all, this is the only way to prevent the same thing from happening again.

In reality there were numerous places where this error might have been trapped and embarrassment avoided – beginning with the design of the process for handing out the envelopes, the lack of a 2-person verification system as each category approached and finally the lack of an envelope disposal system, as each category was announced.

The person handing the envelopes to the presenter, was simply the last domino to fall. Laying all the blame at the feet of the PwC person handing out the cards may be convenient but will not solve the problem of a re-occurrence. The system needs to be changed.

This is where cries of derision usually erupt, objecting to ‘blaming the system’ for our own faults and yet this is an approach that can dramatically reduce mistakes which create negative outcomes and in fact, has transformed safety in many industries, beginning with aviation, which has become the safest form of transportation ever devised.

In aviation safety, the concept of ‘pilot error’ was retired long ago (although the media doggedly hangs onto it for effect) and instead, the entire environment in which mistakes occur is scrutinised, sometimes beginning as far back as the design of the aircraft. Aviation leads the world in the understanding of what we call Human Factors – the cognitive and behavioural weaknesses in humans, that lead to mistakes and in creating systems that trap errors before they cause harm. We proceed with the absolute certainty that humans are incredibly creative and will, inadvertently, find a way around whatever error prevention process we put in place, so we diligently work to create layered defences of processes, actions, double checks and warnings that keep us all safe in the air. Importantly, pilots and engineers are usually not punished for mistakes (as distinct from intentional violations) and are encouraged to self-report errors so that lessons can be learned.

How effective is this approach to preventing negative outcomes from mistakes?

In 2015 3.2 Billion people flew on the world’s airlines yet there was not a single loss of a jet airliner and no resulting deaths. In the same period 1.2 million people died on the world’s roads. That’s quite a contrast…

So next time you are tempted to unload on your favourite error-prone employee, ask yourself, “How much of this do I (or the organisation) own?” Then set about examining the whole picture, not just the hapless individual in your cross-hairs.

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One of the more common phrases I have heard from managers struggling with what appears to be a failing employee, is “I will just have to manage them out.”

This idea has always puzzled me. What they are effectively saying is that they will have to go through the required steps of ‘performance management’ in order to get rid of this person. In other words, the decision is made, so now we just have to build a paper trail and get rid of them without getting into trouble.

With this singular change of mindset, we have moved from using coaching as a tool to gain improvement, to a hollow sham, required to terminate someone’s employment without getting sued.

By necessity this involves deception, as the employee thinks they are getting help when in fact the leader is just ‘going through the motions’ towards a predetermined outcome. I have never understood how any business can justify this kind of behaviour and still claim to have a good leadership culture. It is utter nonsense and also completely unnecessary.

Over the years, when I have been asked to coach a manager struggling with this process, I have usually found that the reason they are stressed is that they know they have not offered the employee the kind of coaching or mentoring that they should have. Maybe they don’t have the skills or just haven’t prioritised it highly enough but now the pressure is on and they don’t know what to do.

I usually begin the session with a series of diagnostic questions. So Allison, let’s start with the records of their training, the coaching you have done, their probationary reports and annual reviews and see what we have.”

Awkward silence usually follows.

“Ahh, I think I have some diary notes somewhere.” Shuffle, shuffle. More silence”

And don’t think this only happens with small businesses. I have sat across the table from HR Directors at very large companies, asking the same questions, asking them to show me evidence of what policies applied and what was done to help the employee only to have the same result. Even large companies with outwardly good reputations and ‘values’ (brands you would know) struggle to have any kind of consistency in how they deal with their people.

Companies that use robust recruiting methods (behavioural profiling, job profiling and properly trained interviewers) start off on the right track but it has to be followed up. During the probation period which us usually 6 months, the ‘new hire’ needs regular coaching sessions with their leader to ensure they are on the right track and have all the support they need.

In Australia, a Learner Driver needs 100 hours of active mentoring in varied road conditions before being given a licence and even then, has restrictions on them for years afterwards yet some companies are happy to hand over a job to someone after a tour of the office and the tea room. Training will be offered if the job has a technical element but often it is just a case of ‘get on with the job’ and opportunities to shape the performance of the new person are lost. Importantly they are often left to interpret the workplace culture without any help, so it’s no wonder many struggle through their first year…

In most cases if the leader carries out effective and thorough probation coaching and mentoring, it will be clear if the person is not suited to the job, long before the company ‘owns’ them. It will also be clear to the employee and they may leave of their own accord, which is as it should be.

Effective leadership and coaching can also catch problems long before they become serious enough to consider ‘managing someone out. Most problems can be corrected and can even be prevented if we ask ourselves as leaders, “Could anyone else have made the same mistake or had the same problem?”  If the answer is yes, then we have a ‘system problem’ not an employee one and getting rid of this person won’t make any difference.

In any case, prevention is the always best option and that starts with effective leadership and coaching from Day 1, not just when the calendar pings and tells you it’s time for their annual review. (If you have to think about what to write at annual review time, it means you haven’t been paying attention.)

However, if you get to the point that you have offered the employee all the help and assistance there is available, have documented your efforts and their commitment to improve and their performance is still not satisfactory, you might find that again, they leave voluntarily but if not, you can let them go, knowing you have done everything you can.

As a bonus the steps you have gone through to help them, also take care of your obligations to offer assistance and support.

Importantly, your other employees will see this and know you are a person of integrity and that can only be good…