Practical Tips For Handling Mistakes at Work

Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone knows how to turn them into learning opportunities. Instead of falling back on the choices to either “forgive and forget” or punish harshly, it’s better to analyze mistakes to figure out the details. This helps me and my team decide how to move forward. 

First, it’s essential to classify the error. Was it a random, one-off mistake? Or does it represent a repeat behavior that signifies an underlying problem?

It’s also important to remember that not all mistakes can be forgiven, even if they are learning experiences. In these cases, I call that a fatal error. We took a page from Netflix HR’s book, and generally follow a philosophy of “Hire, reward, and tolerate only fully formed adults.”

Understanding how to deal with the offending employee in a constructive way isn’t always clear or easy, but I treat employees like responsible, intelligent team members — and I expect the same courtesy. When mistakes happen, we look at them rationally, together. I live by a motto: “Employees join companies, but they quit managers.”

When it comes to handling mistakes or letting go of people, I never want a company of mine to become known for making the same terrible, callous and ultimately fatal mistakes as Xsolla and Bird. Even if you have to fire someone, treat them with the respect and kindness of a friend.

If you’re struggling to make a change in how you tackle conflict management in your business, here are a few ways to approach it.

1. Never start a conversation in anger

This is wise for all areas of life, but it’s handy as a manager. When we’re blindsided by a mistake, it’s natural to lash out and not think before we speak. Whenever you’re presented with an error or problem, don’t respond right away. Allow your rational mind a moment to recover so that your conversation is productive.

2. Check yourself first

As a startup, my natural inclination is to first look at myself and our current processes to see if the mistake could have been avoided by changing how we do things.

For example, if a courier is late or makes a mistake with an order, I don’t automatically assume it’s the individual’s fault. Yes, they should take responsibility for their actions, but it’s useful to analyze the mistake on a larger scale. Is there something in our process that caused this error? Are there things I can change about current workflows to set my employees up for success? These are the kinds of things I hope to learn from mistakes.

3. Hire the right people from the start

Obviously not every hiring decision can be perfect. Make sure your team consists of people with the right mindset, especially around mistakes. Mistakes are a fact of life, so it’s important to hire people who are eager to learn from their mistakes (and everyone else’s).

4. Develop a plan of action

Once you’ve privately discussed the issue with your employee, finish the conversation by working together on a plan for the future. What steps can each of you take to ensure this kind of mistake doesn’t happen again? It can be difficult to walk the fine line between understanding and leniency. I like to follow up after these conversations to gauge how they’re handling the plan we’ve put in place.

5. Lead by example

This one goes hand-in-hand with “check yourself first.” If your team thinks you’re a paragon of perfection, they’re not going to want to tell you when they mess up.

Managers should not be trying to hide their mistakes from the employees, but rather reveal them and let others learn from them. I think it’s better to be open with my team about my own mistakes and bad decisions. Maybe they’ll learn from my screw-ups, or maybe they won’t. Either way, they’ll know that I’ve made my own mistakes, so I won’t judge them harshly for admitting when they make one, too.

6. Teach your team they can mess up

To take a quote from one of my peers, “Clever people learn from the mistakes of others.” I was brought up this way as well, and while it does help to learn from other people’s mistakes, it also made me afraid to admit a mistake or acknowledge anything less than perfection. It imposes a mental block that keeps you from success.

The world has changed (thank goodness), and now, venture capitalists barely glance at entrepreneurs who haven’t made a few blunders along the way. The point here is that mistakes are natural and expected. As long as you own up to them and learn from them, they can actually help you.

Two interesting things happen once your employees realize a mistake won’t cost their job: First, they’re more willing to “take the road less traveled” when finding solutions to problems. This is excellent for infusing energy and innovation into a small business. Second, your team will take your wisdom to heart. Even if they move on to other jobs, they’ll remember your lessons about dealing with mistakes head on.

Show your team what it means to have a steady hand and an optimistic, problem-solving spirit in the face of mistakes, and they’ll reward you with hard work, loyalty and creativity.

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Paul McDonald
Paul McDonald
Photo Editor

Paul is a freelance photograher and graphic designer and has worked on our most recent media kit.


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