Leadership Mar 10, 2021

Dealing with errors – How can leaders foster a good error culture in their teams?

We all know what it feels like to make a mistake. And we’re not talking about small mistakes, like the kind that don’t have consequences and will probably go by unnoticed. We’re talking about mistakes that affect our leader and can have serious consequences. For example if a sales consolidation goes wrong, or a newly developed software is missing something crucial. So, what’s the answer? To just hope that nobody notices? Or to try and iron out the mistake before someone picks up on it?

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Bernd Heinrich
Head of the central services unit

We’ve all tried one or the other, but from the perspective of a leader, neither of these are any good.

But why do we behave like this?

One explanation could be that admitting to a mistake often involves a lot of fear revolving around our leaders seeing our performance as inadequate. Another explanation could be that some leaders react very emotionally to mistakes. So often times we behave like this to protect ourselves. The more employees come across this kind of behaviour, the more adamantly they will try to hide their mistakes.

So how can we stop our employees from hiding their mistakes or trying to fix them in secret?

This requires us to not get emotional in conversations when we talk about mistakes that have been made. One of the recipes for success here is to talk about the future instead of dwelling on the past too much. The mess has already been made–so what’s the point in asking why someone didn’t try harder? The discussion should rather revolve around the question how the employee could avoid the same mistake from happening again in the future.

Another important aspect is to lead by example. Although we all know that it’s human to make mistakes, in the world of work, this fact is often disregarded. It’s important to let our team know that mistakes are a part of everyday work culture by admitting to our own mistakes. Whenever we make a wrong decision, fail to formulate a requirement properly or write an e-mail too harshly we must admit this straight away, without beating around the bush. This sets a good example to our team members and lets them know that mistakes happen on all levels,

and sows the seeds for the mindset that you shouldn’t be afraid of making them, because the lessons learnt through them are so valuable.

What must we keep in mind when talking about our own mistakes?

When we admit mistakes, we must do this instantly and in front of the entire team if possible. We want to avoid the impression among individual group members that we are trying to keep our mistake confined to a small circle of people.

Just like with any other mistakes that happen in the team, we shouldn’t blow them out of proportion. We discuss the issue once with the team at the first possible opportunity. If the scope of the mistake allows it, the next standard meeting would be best. Do not call an emergency meeting!

We communicate clearly that a mistake occurred. We use the personal pronoun “I” and not “we”. The goal is to be a role model and for our team members to follow our example.

Are there any guidelines for dealing with mistakes?

I find the following approach, inspired by the recommendations on the manager-tools.com podcast, very helpful:

1. Report mistakes quickly and honestly.

This allows you to actively limit possible negative effects so that a small problem does not grow into a big one. Even if your own leader  reacts grumpily, they would be even more grumpy if they found out from third parties. Also the emerging concern that the mistake could harm one’s own career should be confidently put aside. Proactively communicating your own mistakes is a sign of professionalism and good leaders will recognise this.

2. What happened?

Focus on the facts. The recipient (usually the leader) should be able to grasp the problem quickly. It also takes less time to present the facts than to write a lengthy novel, which is counter to the objective of reporting the mistake as quickly as possible.

3. What are the effects of the mistake?

This might sound funny at first, since we can expect the person receiving the message to already know the consequences of the mistake. However, the receiver of the message is most likely not involved in the material as much as you are, and hence might not be as aware as you think they may be. Especially if the receiver is your leader, as these are rarely specialists in your field. People often miss the fact that is actually a good way to show that you have already thought about the potential consequences of your mistake.

4. Who needs to be informed?

There may be more people that are affected by the consequences of your mistake. These should also be informed.

5. What are possible solutions?

As experts, you should already know any possible solutions and the consequences that they entail (time and expense, resulting tasks, etc.). Even if none of these turn out to be the right solution, this proves that we are taking responsibility.

6. How can I avoid making this mistake again in future?

This step usually follows the others and shows your leader that it is possible to learn from mistakes. It also a clear sign for leaders that responsibility can be delegated which is another huge benefit on the way up the career ladder.