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Opinion: Managers can help employees make good mistakes

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A critical facet of leadership today is one’s ability to prevent bad mistakes from happening on their team.

What’s surprising, though, is that many leaders have unjustified attitudes toward employee mistakes. The constant pressure for organizations to adapt or make changes likely contributes to questionable views regarding employee risk-taking and autonomy. 

Some leaders, for instance, believe there’s no such thing as a mistake, only a good learning experience. That’s naive. There are mistakes – and really bad ones. Numerous companies have experienced fallout from bad mistakes with negative impact on finances, strategy and decision-making or customer relationships. 

Another example is the overly simplistic view that making any mistake once is fine; as long as the employee is doing what they feel is the right thing. That’s not very practical. There should be reasonable controls on making potentially costly mistakes. No doubt, large and small companies alike have been harmed by serious mistakes.

Take Nokia, for instance, it was once the world’s largest mobile-phone manufacturer. But when smartphones entered the competitive landscape, the company made a series of bad mistakes in adapting and eventually lost its competitive advantage. Recently, I queried participants in a client’s workshop and found that 90% had once owned a Nokia phone. But no one in the audience owned one now. 

Bad mistakes pose threats to otherwise healthy organizations. Here are six ways smart managers can equip employees to make good mistakes while avoiding bad ones.

1. Know which mistake you won’t allow. Identify allowable versus disallowed mistakes. In college, I had a boss who handed me a binder with several earmarked pages and informed me that making a mistake in those critical areas would be grounds for termination. This might be considered unfair for today’s work culture, but I got the point. It motivated me to be cautious with those critical tasks. 

2. Coach your employee through a mistake. As a first-time manager in my 20s, I was not good at handling employee mistakes. Once, after droning on and on to an employee about his slip-up, he snapped back and said, “I got it; I made a mistake. Let’s move on.” Avoid burdening people with too much harsh criticism, make your point but then coach the individual on how to prevent the mistake’s recurrence. 

3. Communicate common-sense parameters. One client of mine permits employees to give freebies, discounts or special deals to customers. Another client does not allow employees to make those decisions without management approval first. Obviously, there are consequences for management to think through with either approach. The key is to communicate and reinforce your parameters for employee autonomy, documentation, decision-making and risk. Clarity naturally reduces bad mistakes.

4. Make enough good mistakes. Unless your people are making a sufficient number of mistakes, they will become stagnant, and stop creating and advancing new opportunities. Create an environment that preserves operational effectiveness, while stimulating entrepreneurial thinking and new ideas.

5. Don’t learn from mistakes; change from mistakes. Some managers allow their people to go from one mistake to the next without making the necessary changes to produce better outcomes. Encourage people to recognize the lessons learned, but also emphasize that it is changed behavior you desire.

6. Don’t turn a good mistake into a bad one.  One of the clients I coach only praised her creative team when their ideas aligned with what she knew the firm’s client would approve. Unfortunately, her constant rejection of leading-edge ideas discouraged her team from putting out top-notch concepts and forced them instead to sustain the status quo. Her failure to encourage good mistakes and produce the very best ideas resulted in the decline of employee morale and potentially harmed client satisfaction. 

Smart managers lead employees in making good mistakes in order to produce the best outcomes, and they work to prevent costly mistakes from happening.

Consultant, professional speaker and author Mark Holmes is president of Consultant Board Inc. and MarkHolmesGroup.com. He can be reached at mark@markholmesgroup.com.

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