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What to Do When an Employee Makes a Mistake

Aug. 22, 2017
Follow this three-step process to hold an employee accountable for a mistake without taking a punitive approach.

Young Bill has missed another deadline important to one of your best customers. You’ll pay a penalty on the order and you run the risk of losing the business totally. You’ve talked to Bill before, but this time you’re ready to really let him have it. You call him in to your office, close the door and then…

If you think the answer is to scream at him or threaten to fire him, you’re likely only going to make the problem worse, says Don Rheem, a leadership expert and author of Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High-Performance Cultures (ForbesBooks, 2017, $29.95)

“The traditional role of managers is to hold people accountable to timelines, budgets, productivity and other factors,” he says. “But often that’s done with a fear-based approach where employees perform their duties under threat of some kind of punishment.”

That’s counterproductive because humans don’t perform to their optimum level when the brain becomes preoccupied with fear and uncertainty, says Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions, a provider of employee workplace metrics and manager training.

In fact, it’s just the opposite. People do a better job of carrying out their duties under positive circumstances, and research shows that individual employees, the team and the organization all are more likely to thrive when leaders are positive.

So what do you do when an employee botches an assignment. Rheem, a former science advisor to Congress and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommends this three-step approach:

Show appreciation. Start the conversation with appreciation for something positive about the employee that relates to performance, behavior or attitude. “This appreciation needs to be unqualified,” Rheem says. “You can’t insert a ‘but’ or a ‘however’ because that quickly negates what you’re trying to do.” The appreciation step is essential, he says, because otherwise the employee will see the entire process as unfair or unbalanced. “You can’t focus strictly on failure,” Rheem says. Employees wonder why their manager only connects with them regarding their mistakes.

Be real. Turn the discussion to what isn’t going well to hold the employee accountable for their actions. The goal is to let the person know in no uncertain terms that the project was not successful, but to do this without shaming, blaming or demoralizing them. Rheem suggests starting this part of the conversation with a statement such as: “We didn’t get where we wanted to with this project.” That acknowledges a shared responsibility, without the punitive sting.

Ask thoughtful questions. Inquire about ways their performance could have delivered a better outcome. Questions such as: “If we did this project again, what could we do differently to change the outcome?” “How could I have supported you and your team better?” Let them know you don’t want answers right way. Say that you’ll get with them the following day to hear their thoughts. “That can change the trajectory of what the employee will do after the meeting,” Rheem says. “Instead of going home and updating their resume and complaining to their spouse about the unfair treatment, they are more likely to spend their time focused on what they could have done differently since they have to answer that question the next day.”

“This process leads to personal and professional growth for the employee,” Rheem says, “and can turn a point of failure into an opportunity for future success.”

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