ATD Blog

The 3 Keys to Leading Employees When They Make Mistakes

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Employees are going to make mistakes. A supervisor’s reaction to those “teachable moments” separates the most effective leaders from the most scorned leaders. A manager's good intentions can be executed poorly as they navigate between micromanagement and building engagement and trust. We will explore three approaches leaders can take when correcting an employee: one, accepting accountability; two, avoiding the trap of annihilating the employee’s drive with aggressiveness; and three, empowering the employee with appreciation.

Accept Accountability

Leaders who avoid correcting their employees do so in a variety of ways, but two common practices are evasion and passive aggressiveness. One can ignore the problematic event or behavior altogether, hoping for the employee to self-correct, quit, or take action that clearly requires termination. This is obviously the least preferred method because it reflects a supervisor who cares more about the obstacle to the conversation than their employee's development and achieving a more desirable outcome for all. At worst, they believe that is the best that particular employee can perform; at best, it is self-preservation for the manager.

Fear, pride, and inexperience are all obstacles that must be overcome to hold employees accountable. Feedback and performance management are an expectation of the supervisor, not a suggested best practice. Leaders cannot allow passive aggressiveness in the form of humor, sarcasm, or a combination of the two to prevent them from delivering the full weight of a hard conversation. 

Don’t Annihilate Drive

There are two common practices that can annihilate an employee's drive and creativity: addressing an issue disproportionately and failing to hear the employee's perspective. Leaders are often visionaries who can see outcomes based on early indicators. This is a great quality to have; however, leaders cannot assume everyone thinks as they do. Overcorrecting a problem which, at its root, is merely a misunderstanding or miscommunication can create a feeling of misappropriated discipline. For example, addressing a single issue as if the employee has already committed to a pattern of inappropriate action will be annoying at best, frustrating and disheartening at worst. Part of the solution is gaining the employee's perspective on the event.

The assumptions a leader makes about an employee's intentions or actions could be just as devastating as the employee's initial mistake. As the saying goes, two wrongs do not make a right. Offering unhelpful suggestions based on assumptions can stifle future initiatives. The leader thinks they are being helpful, while the employee determines the risk of going above and beyond is not worth the hassle if they make another misstep.

A leader who creates space for the employee to share their perspective can prevent this problem easily. By asking questions first when addressing a mistake, a leader offers the employee a chance to provide context, cultivates a learning environment for both employee and supervisor, and fosters a developmental, rather than a correctional, tone. Depending on the questions you ask, an employee may actually come to your conclusions on their own. When an employee is not provided adequate space to disclose their viewpoint, they feel obligated to do so while being corrected. This only leads to more miscommunication and more confusion. The employee does not feel heard, the leader interprets their response as defensive, and neither walk away with a mutual understanding. Which leads to our third approach: appreciation.


Appreciate Effort

First, appreciate your employee’s efforts, intent, and existence, and then offer corrective action at the appropriate time. This can be done by knowing what you really want, acknowledging the employee's efforts first, seeking clarification through questions, and delivering a clear message.

Ensure you really understand what you want from your employee, for your relationship, and for the workplace. If you haven't already done so, spend a few moments self-assessing, reflecting, and identifying how you will clearly communicate what you really want. If you are unclear about what you want, you cannot expect the employee to interpret your desires for you. Conversely, if you are clear but unable to communicate those expectations consistently, you cannot expect the employee to feel encouraged and empowered from your conversation.

In the beginning of the conversation, acknowledge their initiative with a thank you. This may be painful depending on the actual circumstances; however, take the time to realize they have acted to make themselves or the organization better. They may have wasted resources, disrupted the cultural flow, or upset important people, but they did so moving forward, not backward.


As you transition to delivering feedback, say something like, "I would like to provide some feedback on . . . " or "Let me summarize what we've discussed so far. . . . " At this point, there should be a mutual understanding of the situation, task, action, and result (STAR). Now, utilize the STAR-AR method to deliver objective, short, and easy-to-understand feedback. The second AR stands for alternative action and alternative result. After you have established what you really want, communicate the alternative action that will lead to an alternative result based on the suggested changes in behavior or attitude. Even better, enlist the employee to become a thinking partner with you. Ask them to develop their own ideas of alternative actions that will lead to alternative results.

Much of a leader’s influence is determined by how they respond to failure, including their own. However, when an employee fails, leaders must be aware of how their reaction actually inflames the issue through avoidance altogether, or annihilates an employee's innovation and drive through overcriticism. A leader must realize what they really want. Understand the obstacles that prevent you from holding difficult conversations, and overcome them.

Finally, acknowledge the employee’s effort, ask for their perspective, and communicate clearly when appropriate. The STAR-AR method will help ensure mutual respect, increase mutual understanding, and address issues proportionately. Instead of unintentionally restricting creativity, collaboration, and discretionary effort, leaders can inspire, influence, and develop employees. Do not turn employees’ energy into reluctance through unintended mistakes of your own; rather, through sacrifice, engagement, and empowerment, harness their energy and ideas through appropriate channels.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Leadership Lessons by Baylor University.

About the Author

Drexel King is the manager of learning and Development at Baylor University. Years of service as a Naval Academy graduate and infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps provide him with more than 10 years of experience in leadership and performance management. He was a platoon commander in Afghanistan, a leadership consultant for 150 officer candidates, and the training officer for 1,200 incoming freshmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. He has earned several distinct honors and awards for his military service. As a transitioned veteran, Drexel continues to be a student of leadership development with a strong desire to impact lives, learn from others, and make connections.

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