How to Manage Employees When They Make Mistakes

Posted on Sep 30, 2010 | 79 comments


I was recently involved with a company (not as an investor) where an embarrassing mistake was made.  One of the leaders took a sort of “heads will roll” approach.  It’s not my company so I basically stayed out but tried to encourage him to think differently about the “punishment.”  I didn’t stick around for the repercussions so I hope the process was balanced.

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But it got me thinking about the topic of leadership and how to manage people through “light” and “heat” (think carrot & stick but I like my analogy better because we’re humans not animals).

As a leader you need to have both heat and light in your arsenal.  You cannot lead all people all of the time through light.  In my experience some individuals are the over-achievers who are looking for stars on their foreheads and thrive on constant positive feedback.  For these people you need to lead through *mostly* light.  There are other types of people (let’s say, prone to a bit of laziness or procrastination) who tend to be motivated more by fear of being in “trouble” and not wanting to look bad.  These people are led better through a bit of heat.

I know the populist answer is to lead through only light.  But as a father let me offer you this analogy.  I spend a lot of the time with my kids trying to tell them things like, “if you want to be able to buy nice things in life you need to work hard” because I don’t want them to take all that they have for granted.  I tend to praise their efforts as much as their results while still emphasizing the importance of actual results.  I try to be a “light” daddy.  Mostly.

But when they’re being naughty an “I’ll buy you ice cream if you’re good” approach doesn’t work and isn’t warranted.  I much simpler, “if I have to come over there and separate you two, you’re going to lose your lego set for a week” yields better results.  Not with a yell.  Certainly never with violence.  But with heat.

But that begs the question – what is “heat” and how do you apply it?

I always felt that the “disappointed dad” (or mom!) approach in business worked more effectively than yelling.  It is crushing to somebody when they hear messages like, “I would have expected you to have planned better for this meeting.  I put a lot of trust in you and I feel let down that you didn’t take this seriously enough to prepare.”  And then followed with “listen, I don’t want to see this happen again.  Let’s work on a plan to make sure it doesn’t.  But to be clear, if I see this again I’m going to have to consider consequences.”

So my rules are:

1. Highlight the error – Best to do this after the situation has happened, not when emotions are flared on both sides or you won’t have a rational discussion or reflection.  Tell the person that you’d like them to reflect on what happend so you can debrief on the topic in 48 hours.  Obviously if the situation is urgent you need to put the situation right before reflecting on what happened.

2. Discuss what you would have expected – I never understood why when managers did reviews they’d say what you did wrong without a clear explanation of what they think you should have done.  If you don’t have an answer for what the right process or right behavior would be then you’re not going to be very effective in helping the person to be better next time.

3. Help them plan the new rules / process to ensure the mistake isn’t repeated – Be a problem solver.  Work on the new process with them.  Talk about exactly what needs to happen next time.  They need a map for success – not just a “this better never happen again” arse kicking.

4. Don’t immediately go back to “buddy buddy” nice guy. To be an effective disappointed dad they need to feel a little distance and a sense that “all is not OK.”  This is really hard as a parent because you want to just go up and hug your kids.  I feel the lesson isn’t absorbed as much this way.  Think of it as “the penalty box” or a time-out or whatever.  But they need a cooling off period from being in your good graces.  They need to know it is not OK what happened and shouldn’t be taken lightly.  But not a sense that they’re now not to be trusted.  In fact, I think the best approach is if they feel they need to re-earn your trust.

5. Don’t yell.  Yelling yields resentment in the receiver and often makes the message unpalatable (I have a temper like anybody. I cannot say I’ve never yelled.  I got really angry with my assistant, for example, but only one time since we’ve worked together.  I yelled.  I had regret for weeks and we had to spend way more time working through the issue because I inflamed the situation than would have been the case if I would have kept my cool.  I lost twice.  I had to rebuild trust.  It worked against me, not for me.)

6. Praise people publicly, but discipline people privately – If you do need to discipline people don’t try to make a public spectacle of them to set an example.  People won’t learn – they’ll just think you’re an arsehole.  People absorb their mistakes when they aren’t embarrassed by them.

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It’s strange to me that in the technology sector we have such a reputation for yellers.  Maybe it’s business in general and not just tech.  When I think about the reputations of Larry Ellison, Tom Siebel, Marc Benioff, Steve Ballmer and reportedly Steve Jobs it seems like we have a culture of yellers or people who lead through fear.  I’m certain that if you’re as genius as any of these people you can get away with it in spite of yourself.

People stay at companies with leaders who rule like Mussolini because they want to be part of something super successful.  But it does tend to breed organizations of people who walk around like beaten dogs with their heads down waiting to be kicked.  It produces sycophants and group think.  And if your company ever “slips” people head STRAIGHT for the door as they did at Siebel.

I’d love to see a new generation of tech companies that don’t rule through fear.

So back to the situation that prompted the post.  It actually affected me much more than the team involved or even the manager.  I felt personally disappointed and let down.  But I also knew it was unintentional and frankly it was already too late to fix it.  And I know how hard the team involved works.  In a way, while I felt bad for my situation, I felt worse for them.  I’m certain they felt mortified.  And that plus an action plan is good enough for me.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    You have a great way of framing it. My management experience is non-existent. I generally get hands on with everyone I work with, then leave them to their specialties. I'm better as a assist to many than as solo/freelancer.

  • http://twitter.com/Ramteke Piyush Ramteke

    Nice post Mark. A few thoughts.

    On yelling –
    - Might work momentarily, but does much harm in the long run
    - Apart from the individual, will definitely leave the extended team in misery too
    - Increases space for unnecessary gossip, especially when organizations are bigger & common bays are used
    - The leader is doing no good in mentoring his future leaders, time and time again I have seen team leads mirror project managers
    - The worst thing which usually happens is when this individual carries this grief home

    On heads will roll stance –
    - This is the worst stance one could take, especially publicly. It’s a different thing to weed out the individuals who are below average performers. But even this needs to done very tactfully without other employees feeling any sort of negativity
    - Ideally below average performers should be reassigned to other tasks based on personality, but of course usually in startups one might not have such luxury

  • Scott

    It sounds like advice for employers who hire children. Perhaps it is appropriate for managing fast food, or a startup with college students who have never had a job before.

    I remember when I worked for other people when I screwed up and couldn't correct it I would bring the error to the attention of relevant parties immediately so there were no surprises. Some people were shocked by this. They reported that at their company people tended to hide their errors, pin them on other people, shift blame and engage in denialism and subterfuge.

    Observing this long enough I realized that because mistakes resulted in dressing downs and punishments and corrective plans of actions, it became important to make sure you CYA and don't get blamed for your own screw ups. That's what corrective plans do.

    If the workplace has adults you screw up you fix it. If you can't fix it you let people know so as to reduce damage. And then you move on.

    Now that I have my own company this is how it works. No blame.

    It's been interesting to learn too that that is how aerospace accident investigations work. Document what happened and make corrections to the process as needed but no disciplining. If you punish people they will stop reporting on mistakes and start covering up and then you're basically screwed and everything goes downhill from there.

  • sameeracmc

    I agree… My 7 yr old taught me through his unspoken words a few months back…

    If I make a mistake, I would like to know why it is a mistake and what are the consequences, how to fix it and why to fix it like that.. in other words, every time my wife yelled on my kid, he improvised on his mistake making it better and bigger. Revolt and a broken thread is always the near result of yelling..

    I just got lucky to have never said “Stop yelling boss” :D, guess an experience i missed

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Good summary. thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Disagree. Leaders are those who know how to get the best behavior out of teams and that includes heat and light. Imagine a military without any sense of leadership or order. It's true that adults can process information more easily than children but encouraging others to reflect on what has worked and what hasn't is an important part of leadership. Expecting everybody to simply “do their part” does not produce outsized results.

  • Daniel

    our kids cherish the points they earn through chores and threatening to take some away in a calm voice works pretty good for us and I agree with privately disciplining employees. You are spot on with this one.

  • Michael_RightSite

    Hi Mark,
    About your point 3,”Help them plan the new rules / process to ensure the mistake isn’t repeated,” this assumes that all issues are rules / process related. Many times I find it's easy to over-legislate the company trying to put in place procedures that will keep underperformers from underperforming, and these extra rules can easily alienate the self-starters. Other than dismissing people, do you have any tips on keeping the average team member on task without adding more rules or processes?

  • http://naamanetworks.com/ David Bloom

    I know it is trite but the old “one minute praising” and “one minute scolding” technique always works with me. I get to be comprehensive and have impact- positive and negative- without resorting to bluster. Recently we passed our pre-launch acceptance testing and I rewarded my CTO with an equity bonus. The whole conversation was about 60 seconds. He was glowing and so was I. For negative conversations I do believe in your number 4 but I try hard not to hold a grudge. More I go neutral in my tone once the scolding is over. I vent the grudge to my understanding wife when I get home, the poor woman.

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com JohnExley

    Great succinct question bro

  • PG

    Muster,
    Seems people who are really good and game changer don't tolerate yelling, only people who are really needy or who are not good tolerate this nonsense. You are perfect example of this.

  • dshen

    I saw a ton of management styles when I was at Yahoo. Mostly, these were the result of inconsistent or non-existent management training. But yet, somehow Yahoo still functioned. I read some popular management books and very few of the people employed those techniques, even the supposedly experienced people who had been working for a long time at other companies. I was constantly perplexed about this until I left Yahoo and went through this with an excellent executive coach.

    As a result, I learned that it was pointless to try to learn something from a management book written by a person (think management principles by Jack Welch or Rudi Giuliani, etc.). However, the reason why I think a person could write such a book is because of their own personality. They created a management style that works because of who they were and what they could accomplish given their personality. If you were not like them, you'd never be able to execute a management style like them.

    This meant that you could be extremely effective by some measures; build a great company, turn it around, get rid of deadwood, drive innovation and change through force of will, etc. etc. But it could mean that a lot of people are victims along the way.

    So is management style meant for the people under you or to accomplish the greater good?

    I also came to the realization that the only books I could find valuable were those that were the result of extensive, broad research (like Marcus Buckingham's First Break All the Rules and others). Thus, I think that it is valuable to learn the “principles” derived from research, and then meld that with your personality and takes what works and what doesn't and/or what you can execute personally.

    Or in other words, if you're a bosshole, you'll probably never change. But you may be awesome in getting your company to success, even if everyone hates you. Or you might suck at getting your company to success and everyone hates your guts too…

  • vinhkhoa

    Great post Mark. Yelling makes you look unprofessional and will create a very bad image of yourself. Everytime someone makes mistakes, the first question that popups up in my mind is “do they do so on purpose? Or they tried but they couldn't do any better because they didn't know or that's all they could do.” and also I will try to see if they understand and regret it or not. People make mistakes. Me too. But what's important is the commitment and being determined to do it better the next time.

  • http://pixelbits.wordpress.com/ Mona Nomura

    “Thus, I think that it is valuable to learn the “principles” derived from research, and then meld that with your personality and takes what works and what doesn't and/or what you can execute personally.”

    BINGO.

  • http://twitter.com/mrskuza Arek Skuza

    I like this post. It helps a lot and it provides useful info.

  • dshen

    bingo is right!

    however, it could still mean you retain bosshole characteristics even though you are effective at attaining larger goals. or it could mean you're a great people manager and never get anywhere at attaining the larger goals…

  • http://jdtangney.com jdtangney

    Read “Drive” by Daniel Pink. He examines what really motivates people (and, surprisingly, even animals). As you point out, “stick” can backfire. Pink explains how “carrot” backfires too.

  • MM

    …Thx for this. Couldn't have come at a better time.

    I just moved over from a F500 comp to lead biz dev at a 6-man start-up. Our project lead (customer facing guy), someone I went to school with and respect (he actually recruited me) has a hot temper. Since I know him and the rest of the team is quite introverted I can stand up to him, but his flare-ups bring the team down and has resulted in ppl leaving int eh past. I've had to take him to our mtg room and let him know this style is destructive on multiple occasions in my first 3 wks.

    It's great to have these points. Thx again!

  • http://pixelbits.wordpress.com/ Mona Nomura

    Doesn't that come with experience? That, as in the ability to discern and balance various characteristics of good leadership.

    I've also noticed confidence is one of the biggest determining factors of a good leader. In order to grow others, you need to be ok with them even surpassing you.

  • dshen

    I think my point is that not everyone cares about their employees under them. This may be deliberate or just naviete or ignorance. I don't think that great leaders are also great people managers by default. I have seen people who have never learned to take care of their employees under them but still could somehow execute to satisfaction of upper management and/or shareholders.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    “I’d love to see a new generation of tech companies that don’t rule through fear.”

    Any thought as to why this propensity exists in tech companies?

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Interesting, Arnold — I did a whole blog post called “The Real Story” after I discovered some disheartening information about a startup CEO through social media — including his own Twitter account! — that caused me not to pursue the company as a client. What the company website said was completely opposite to what was fairly easy to discover by probing online, thanks to a few disgruntled ex-employees with similar stories.

    I find that often the people who are the worst at this don't stop to think about their reputations — they are too caught up in the moment and sometimes just a bit (or maybe a lot) narcissistic which makes them somewhat immune to others' opinions.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    “People stay at companies with leaders who rule like Mussolini because they want to be part of something super successful.”

    The “pre-IPO” carrot can have a similar effect.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Hey Mark…

    A hint from a friend and admirer of yours. Your management experience may be minimal but that has nothing to do with your capabilities. What we stretch towards with confidence is as important as what we have experience in in some ways.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    You are probably right. My guess is that if we have respect or admiration we are just more tolerant. For example, friends seeing 'The Social Network' who are not in the biz see the jerkiness of the character portrayal as part of the overall brilliance of his vision and accomplishment. Basically, no big deal to many viewers.

    But ideally in a world where every action on the street and at a party and in a bar is caught…I'm actually hopeful that this public exposure of being a jerk will move into the office.

    Transparency is painful but it pushes things in the right direction.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    I'll check out your post Donna.

    But, yes…everything in the real world is more grey than black or white.

    But the tolerance we all exhibit towards inspired people is natural. It takes superhuman effort to drive a company from 0 to whatever. Incredible self belief. Rare, especially in a first time entrepreneur to have that balance. And hard in a multi-time leader to have the fire with the perspective that experience brings.

  • http://www.brekiri.com/blog/ Greg4

    For the time-strapped, here's the 10-minute whiteboard movie version of Pink's talk: http://bit.ly/aiwEnJ

  • CHEWYchewTHE2nd

    I was accused of making a mistake and immediately fired on the spot, my third day at this particular job, without so much as being yelled at and told by the boss that he was frustrated. There is no point disputing the rejection, the employer required an agreement for immediate unemployment upon joining the business.

    I can't wait to show him the fancy car and other expensive possessions I will have, thanks to not being tied down at a shitty job; the arrogance of this statement is perfectly warranted and will be true.

  • John Biscevic

    Great post, per usual, Mark. I think many of my views and experiences as a military leader as well as a civilian leader (not JUST a manager) are portrayed in your post and the comments (of some) of your readers. One thing I'll add is from Gen. (Ret.) Colin Powell. I encourage my managers to review and be familiar with his Leadership Primer. There are many valuable insights that translate directly from military to civilian leadership. Replace “soldiers” with “employees” and you'll see what I mean. Definitely worth a 5-minute review.

    Someone posted a copy here: http://www.slideshare.net/guesta3e206/colin-powells-leadership-presentation (pardon the ads).