Archives for posts with tag: handling mistakes

Carrying out a ‘performance management’ (I prefer performance improvement) discussion can be one of the most challenging tasks a leader can undertake.

Many leaders avoid these altogether or try to palm them off onto HR.Some wait until the pain of non-performance is so great that it exceeds the discomfort of having the discussion.

The truth it that it doesn’t have to be that hard. Really…

So how can you reduce the discomfort?

Well first, let me repeat my suggested NAKED LEADERSHIP problem solving mantra:

When despite your best efforts, something goes wrong and someone screws up, the first question you need to ask is

“How much of this do I own?”

That’s right – you, the company and anyone with a degree of influence over what has gone wrong.

You must with excruciating fairness, thoroughly explore the procedures and processes, including recruitment and selection, the communication, timely feedback, measurement, coaching and training (all documented of course!) and anything else that you have a responsibility to provide, to see if it has gone awry.

If you don’t bother and you eventually fire the employee, anything missing in the above can be cause for an unfair dismissal case.

More importantly, this process can help identify if someone else is likely to have the same problem. if that is possible, then you have a system problem more than an employee one and ‘shooting’ this person is not going to change that.

If after reviewing these key areas, you come to the conclusion that you have done as much as you can to help your team member onto the right path and they are not performing, you need to find out why and that means a coaching meeting.

Now a key point: Never, Never get emotionally involved in the issue. It may affect you and even your own KPIs but it is essential that you ‘park’ this and that it remains an objective discussion about the problem not the person.

You must play the role of an Umpire and a Coach.

  • In any performance meeting your job is to gather as many available facts and evidence as you can and then treat it like a mystery or a puzzle: The mystery is: Why is this employee not performing as required?

This is an entirely different approach to going in and telling them to pick up their game or else!

If you attack they will fight back, or dodge the issue or cry or call the union or HR. That’s Humans 101.

Remaining calm and impartial can help people accept responsibility to self correct.

It is crucial that you ask ‘open’ questions and let them do most of the talking. This can be as simple as sitting down and factually laying out the areas of concern. Avoid any emotional statements or accusations.

Use neutral questioning language such as: “Jeff I wanted to talk to you because I have noticed that your last three reports have been submitted at least two days late and contained a number of errors (place the reports on the table for him to review) . I have looked over the performance requirements of your role and your training in this area (place these on the table for him as well) . Can you have a look and help me understand how this has come about?”

Do not speak again until he does. Allow as much time as it takes.The silence is a tool – avoid filling it with personal justification for talking to him. In other words Shut up…

Your whole purpose is to provide information and then have Jeff measure himself against his job description, work requirements and any instructions you have given him.

When he comments he may simply accept responsibility or may try to make excuses. Either way you need to ask him if there is any specific reason why this is happening. Remember we are trying to determine the cause, not pin the blame.

  • Avoiding unnecessary criticism or visible annoyance (including tone of voice) can get much better results.
  • Remember you are not doing anything to Jeff. You are simply holding him responsible for the work for which he is being paid.
  • It may take some practice to remain detached but it makes it a better process for everyone. The employee doesn’t feel like a naughty child and you don’t feel like an angry parent.

If you get emotionally involved, you are as the old saying goes “Making a Monkey for your own back”. Getting emotionally involved can cause you to say things that you will regret or be perceived as unprofessional or hostile. Not a good look.

After he has clearly seen the contrast between what is required and what he has been doing, ask:

“So Jeff, as I have pointed out, your work is important to our team and I really need to be able to rely on you. Can you tell me how you plan to get back on track?”

Get specifics and a commitment within a time frame that works for you.(You must allow a reasonable time to correct performance). You also need to offer any reasonable support to help him. That is not only a requirement under most workplace laws it is good business. replacing employees is expensive!

Remember it is not your job to do Jeff’s job, it is his.

You simply need to provide him with necessary resources and support so he can perform. If he consistently fails to perform you simply repeat the process but let him know that this cannot continue happening.

I have found this approach usually identifies problems and in the vast majority of cases, the employee accepts responsibility and self corrects. Most people want to do a good job but they also need to have an Umpire and Coach to keep them on track.

Playing this role is a lot less stressful than playing judge and executioner.

Remember a coach can still ‘bench’ or replace a player if necessary.

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Leaders like anyone else, are prone to mistakes, missteps, emotional decisions and other foibles.

We are human but we are also in a position to have a degree of power or influence over others’ lives. As Spiderman was told after discovering his super powers-“With great power comes great responsibility.” Now before you think I am going ‘Sheldon-esque’ on you, our arachnophile was given wise counsel.

It is a relatively common failing of leaders to let their emotions dictate their actions or at least influence them. This is very dangerous. As leaders we must remain above the fray. We have to be seen (and act) as impartial, fair and objective. If we fail in these things we will seriously undermine our workplace relationships and thereby our reputation and credibility.

When we feel our emotions beginning to influence us, it is time to dis-connect.[1] You cannot make an objective assessment while angry or upset or even extremely happy. It simply doesn’t work. We have probably all made a decision (in a moment of giddy optimism) that we came to regret. Worse is making decisions or acting while angry with someone-particularly if those people report to us. NEVER-NEVER-NEVER ‘go after someone’. It will be obvious to all and will sooner or later be your undoing

The reality is that it is rare for people to do things with ill intent. Really… 99.9999999% of people in the world are generally honest, hardworking and ethical, so if they have made an error it is usually an honest one. That is – one borne from misunderstanding, misinterpretation, lack of training or some other human factor.

If we treat mistakes this way and seek to correct the causal factors rather than – in some form- punishing the person, much better results will be had because they will be inclined to ‘own’ their mistake rather than denying or defending it out of fear. (This is a lesson learned at great cost and now enshrined in aviation safety.)

This pro-active behaviour is never more important to exhibit than when WE make a mistake. When a leader makes a mistake it is essential that we stand up and own it. This does not make us appear foolish or flawed but rather honest and ethical. If we expect others to follow us it is critical that they see us correcting ourselves and acknowledging missteps.

In this way we can build a culture where people self-report, so that future mistakes can be avoided rather than made and then hidden.


[1] For how to Dis-connect see Chapter 6 in NAKED LEADERSHIP