Mistakes happen, now what?

By Melissa Rosenthal

Published on 16-02-2013


Everyone makes a mistake at some point in their career. It's inevitable. So how should a good leader respond to a mistake made by one of their team members? Melissa Rosenthal, a director at South View Consulting offers some advice...

When people make a mistake they tend to react in one of two ways:

  • Contrition - they freely admit the error and are keen to work to rectify the issue as soon as possible; or
  • Denial - they try to cover up the error and if/when discovered, they may look to apportion blame elsewhere. This type of response is more difficult to manage.

As a leader it's important to recognise which of these reactions you're dealing with and respond appropriately.

A common response is to publicly yell and scream with frustration, which usually produces the worst outcome, especially if you need the person to fix the problem.

So next time someone in your team makes a mistake it might be worth considering the following before losing your cool:

  1. Name the issue, not the person - it's important to define the problem rather than name and shame the person. This takes the emotion out of the issue. For example, I know an excellent manager at a large industrial steel company who has an agreement with his staff that when something goes wrong they come to him and refer to the mistake as a "technical problem". He knows that an error has been made by that staff member but the focus is on issue resolution, rather than on the person.
  2. Fix the symptom - identify any critical stakeholders, bring them together and develop an immediate action plan. (Note: The extent of this will obviously depend on the size of the mistake). Don't forget to communicate the action plan so that everyone affected by the mistake is aware of what is happening.
  3. Fix the problem - assess the source of the problem. Does it stem from a skill deficiency, an attitude problem or a process breakdown? If you only fix the symptom, it is highly likely that the mistake will be repeated. This is easier with someone who is 'contrite' than with someone in 'denial' because they are more likely to be open to considering why the error occurred. This step is often forgotten as the team moves on to other priorities.
  4. Maintain perspective and measure your response - how big is the problem? There will be times when the problem is truly significant - for example, when someone gets hurt on the factory floor - while at other times, the mistake may be relatively easy to correct - such as an error in a customer letter. It's important to react appropriately to the problem at hand. If you overreact to a minor mistake, this can discourage team members to be open and honest when future mistakes occur.
  5. Close the book - don't forget to discuss the issue with the individual concerned. I've seen many instances where the issue is resolved from the organisation's perspective, but the specific feedback is not provided to the individual until their performance appraisal when it's used against them. It's important to deal with the relevant feedback in a timely manner.
  6. Manage your emotions - you're entitled to feel angry and frustrated by the mistake but try to find an outlet that doesn't involve anyone associated with the issue at hand. This can be a colleague in another area of your organisation, a family member or even an executive coach. A calm approach to the mistake and the person responsible will ensure the error is rectified in an effective and efficient manner and can also significantly enhance employee engagement and loyalty.

Melissa Rosenthal is a director of South View Consulting, a Melbourne-based executive coaching firm dedicated to improving business results through leadership and management development. Please send any comments or questions you have in relation to this article to: