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Mistaeks Happen

Strategies for handling them the right way

by Lina Genovesi
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Many managers recognize that properly handling mistakes is an attractive managerial quality, whether it is handling the mistakes of a subordinate or their own mistakes. If managers can perfect the art of handling mistakes properly, their credibility and reputation for talent management will increase as well as career opportunities within their organizations.

Making mistakes is part of doing business. As Albert Einstein stated, “Great leaders allow their people the freedom to make mistakes. Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

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Many managers recognize that properly handling mistakes is an attractive managerial quality, whether it is handling the mistakes of a subordinate or their own mistakes. If managers can perfect the art of handling mistakes properly, their credibility and reputation for talent management will increase as well as career opportunities within their organizations.

Mistakes of the subordinate

Many managers recognize that mishandling the mistakes of subordinates may affect the work quality of the entire team. Mishandling mistakes can result from overcorrecting or undercorrecting. Overcorrecting mistakes may cause subordinates to be too afraid to make mistakes and cause them to hide mistakes, making correction more difficult. For fear of taking risks, they also may take a wait-and-see attitude, letting opportunities pass by rather than contributing to change initiatives. Undercorrecting mistakes may cause subordinates to keep making mistakes and cause top performers to begin doubting the value of good work and lose their enthusiasm.

In the book The Coach: Creating Partnerships for a Competitive Edge, authors Steven Stowell and Matt M. Stracevich advocate a process based on an “eight-step coaching model.” This coaching model serves as a communication road map between a manager and a subordinate and can be adapted to handling mistakes.

The coaching model follows a support-initiate concept, which requires the manager to be a strong supporter of the subordinate while initiating a rigorous problem-solving discussion. The support-initiate concept requires the manager to demonstrate the ability to be firm and fair and to push at the right time while remaining flexible.

The coaching model has eight steps.

Step 1: Be Supportive

Step1 sets the tone for any coaching discussion between a manager and a subordinate. The perception of the subordinate of the level of support coming from the manager determines the success of the coaching discussion. Thus, to improve on the effectiveness of the process, the manager must increase the level of support as perceived by the subordinate, while initiating a strong and clear problem-solving discussion without being punitive or demeaning to the subordinate. Step 1 includes ten supportive behaviors:

  1. Collaboration/Flexibility. The manager and subordinate share responsibility for assignments and tasks in handling the mistake.
  2. Help/Assistance. The manager is willing to provide the subordinate with resources and be available to the subordinate for future consultation.
  3. Empathy/Understanding. The manager treats the feelings, concerns, and difficulties of the subordinate with dignity.
  4. Value Recognition. The manager is willing to express appreciation and belief that the subordinate is an important part of the team. This contributes to the positive sense of self-esteem of the subordinate.
  5. Listening/Interaction. The manager is willing to give the subordinate his or her full attention and gives the subordinate time to express ideas, reactions, and suggestions.
  6. Recognition. The manager recognizes the interests, individual needs, objectives, and aspirations of the subordinate.
  7. Positive Feedback/Credit. The manager is willing to give the subordinate credit for specific past achievements.
  8. Encouragement/Optimism. The manager is willing to reassure the subordinate that the situation can be resolved.
  9. Positive Exchange. The manager is willing to focus on the issues in a nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way.
  10. Openness. Where applicable, the manager is willing to accept responsibility for contributing to the situation and does not blame it all on the subordinate.

Step 2: Define the Topic and Needs

Step 2 is the first substantive problem-solving step. The purpose of Step 2 is to allow the manager to prepare the subordinate for change.

The manager may find the following guidelines helpful:

  • Not starting the discussion with an accusation
  • Giving the subordinate time to react, vent, or defend
  • Being specific, descriptive, and nonhostile
  • Being on the lookout for preliminary excuses and justifications that indicate that the subordinate is beginning to deal with the reality of the situation
  • Restating the information and responding authentically if the subordinate has trustworthy information
  • Stating or restating expectations to achieve mutual understanding and to allow the manager and subordinate to express their perceptions

Step 3: Establish Impact

In Step 3, the manager establishes the impact of the situation on the subordinate with the manager explaining to the subordinate that he or she should consider revising the actions that resulted in the mistake.

The intended impact of Step 3 is to help the subordinate assess the impact of the actions leading to the mistake and their effect on personal goals, other coworkers, and the operations of the organization; to create self-motivation to sustain the change process; and spark the search for new plans and actions.

Step 4: Plan of Action

In Step 4, the manager has a choice of creating a plan for the subordinate or negotiating a plan with the subordinate. A manager may feel the need to dictate a plan to the subordinate and ask the subordinate for his or her commitment. A manager must be willing to relax the need for control. Provided the subordinate is willing to be responsive, the manager must be willing to act as a catalyst and a facilitator.

The plan needs to be specific, simple, clear, and feasible. In addition, the manager needs to set timetables and clearly understood goals. The manager should also encourage the subordinate to provide ideas on how to reach the goals. The more input from the subordinate on the plan, the more likely the subordinate will feel part of the plan and will take ownership of the results.

Step 5: Make a Commitment

In Step 5, the manager will get a commitment from the subordinate about his or her willingness and obligation to respond positively. Such a commitment is an indication that the subordinate is taking ownership of and responsibility for acting on the plan as designed.

Step 6: Confront Excuses

In Step 6, the manager is willing to convey a determination to act on the plan without showing insensitivity, harshness, or unreasonableness.

A number of excuses can develop at any time in the process. Excuses may surface at the onset to justify why things are happening in a way or may surface during discussions of the plan for action. These excuses may create problems for the manager, as they may interfere with future progress.

The challenge for the manager is to keep the discussion on track and not focus on the excuses. However, excuses may be helpful, as they can provide an opportunity for the manager and the subordinate to foresee problems and make contingency plans.

Step 7: Clarify Consequences

In Step 7, the manager clarifies any consequences if a subordinate performs or does not perform under a plan. A manager must assess the strength of the commitment of the subordinate. If the manager perceives the commitment to be weak, the manager should emphasize the negative consequences. If the manager perceives the commitment to be strong, the manager should focus on the positive consequences for the subordinate.

Step 8: Persevere

In Step 8, the manager demonstrates perseverance during and after the meeting with the subordinate. During the meeting with the subordinate, the manager must highlight a continuing commitment to the subordinate. After the meeting with the subordinate, the manager’s follow-up actions become an important indicator of the manager’s willingness to persevere with the process.

As part of persevering with the process, the manager must continue renewing the commitment of the subordinate and make any necessary revisions to the plan.

Mistakes of the manager

Many managers recognize the fact that mishandling their own mistakes may affect the work quality of the entire team and undermine their role as effective managers. Therefore, many managers recognize the importance of mastering the art of handling mistakes and turning them into leadership opportunities.

In his book Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, John Maxwell looks at making mistakes in a positive light and states, “In life, the question is not if you will have problems but how you are going to deal with your problems. Are you going to fail forward or backward?”

The concept of failing forward is that a manager may stumble with a mistake, but as long as the manager does not land on his or her back and stay there, there is progress in handling the mistakes.

Below are guidelines for managers for handling their own mistakes.

Step 1: Learn from the Mistake

The manager is willing to recognize that he or she made the mistake, look objectively at the mistake, recognize the wrong done, and understand the impact of the mistake.

Step 2: Own Up

The manager is willing to be held accountable and to admit to making the mistake. The manager is willing to express openly any lessons learned from the mistake.

Step 3: Fix the Mistake

The manager is willing to do what it takes to rectify the mistake. The manager must establish a timeline for action and follow up and must communicate to the leadership the progress made. If the manager has the option of brainstorming with the team on handling the mistake, the manager must not lose sight of the fact that fixing the mistake as a team may quickly rectify the mistake and provide leadership opportunities for the manager.

Step 4: Place Safeguards

The manager is willing to put safeguards in place to ensure that neither the manager nor subordinates will repeat the same mistake. The manager is willing to document the safeguards to help other managers and subordinates learn from the mistake that the manager made.

Step 5: Apologize

The manager is willing to apologize. A proper apology includes admitting the mistake, apologizing for making the mistake, acknowledging what went wrong that caused the mistake to occur, and attesting to a plan to fix the mistake on a specific timeline.

Step 6: Keep Perspective

The manager is willing to keep the mistake in perspective and move forward without fear of making another mistake.

Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom. If managers and subordinates do not make mistakes, it is likely that they are not trying outside their comfort zone, and that in itself is a mistake. Sandy Weill once stated, “I believe in letting people know that if they make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. What would be the end of the world is making a mistake and hiding it. If people are not willing to make mistakes, they’re never going to make any right decisions. On the other hand, if they make mistakes all the time, they should go work for a competitor.”