As leaders we are all aware of the litany of clichés that abound about mistakes; nothing is perfect, mistakes will happen, mistakes are a part of daily life, we all make mistakes, and so on. As Amy Rees Anderson entrepreneur and angel investor commented “Mistakes are not failures, they are simply the process of eliminating ways that won’t work in order to come closer to the ways that will.”
What is critical is how leaders respond as that says a lot about you as a leader. Your response becomes a template for others in your organisation in the way they respond to mistakes, and your response has a direct impact on your company’s culture.
There are many ways leaders can respond, here are five ways to respond that will have a constructive impact on your culture.
- Listen. Whether the mistake has high or low impact, it will be a ‘big deal’ for the person who made it. Invest time to gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation and circumstances. Avoid jumping to conclusions and making assumptions; instead focus on gathering the facts and ensuring you understand what also worked.
- Ranting and doing nothing are not options. Losing your cool, ranting, call it what you like, is theatrical and ineffective. If this is a standard response to mistakes as a leader you become predictable, people come to expect this behaviour from you and they become ‘inoculated’ against it. As one person put it to me when a leader from another business area lost their cool over a mistake “Don’t mind Paul he does this all the time, this too shall pass”. People pretty much ignored what was going around them.
At the other end of the spectrum ‘doing nothing’ in the hope the issue will go away is not an option as it creates frustration and a relatively small mistake can balloon into a
major issue that is costly to resolve.
Our experience is ‘the rant’ and ‘do nothing’ strategies are major contributors to building defensive behaviour in cultures where people hide mistakes to avoid blame, avoid risk,
go on the offensive to defend positions, and do only what’s required.
- Choose your questions carefully. Leaping straight in with a question along the lines of “Why did this happen?” creates a defensive response as the person feels the pressure to defend themselves due to feeling they have been challenged. Instead, a more constructive approach is to use questions that are framed to invite discussion and explanation. Questions like “Can you explain to me what happened please?”, or “Please share with me how this happened?”
- Seek a solution first. All too often leaders immediately respond by providing the solution to resolve the mistake. Unless it is an absolute dire emergency or a life or death situation provide space for the person who made the mistake to develop or contribute to the solution and be part of the implementation of the solution. This promotes a stronger sense of achievement, helps rebuild self-confidence, and anchors key learning points.
- Ask the wider organisation question. In the main, mistakes occur because new people don’t know what’s required, more experienced people are not paying attention, or a process is not supporting required outcomes. Leaders need to find the cause, understand the impact, confirm if this is an isolated instance or otherwise, and initiate action to fix the process which may involve changes to the process, its application, or additional education and training either individually or company-wide.
We all make mistakes, every one of us. Mistakes, our own and those made by others, are a challenge because they have the capacity to impact a range of outcomes. Handled well they result in a culture where honesty becomes core, learning is valued, and people grow.
Vivente Australiaenables leaders and managers to create the conditions that allow their people to do their best work every day thus creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its outcomes.