So your clumsy employee made another mistake. What’s it going to be? A telling-off? Sarcastic jokes at their expense? Or just a stern lesson on how to do things properly? As it turns out, the most valuable way to respond to employee mistakes may be to help them learn to forgive themselves.
Nobody likes making mistakes, but actually, they’re good for us. Making mistakes is how we learn. Depending on the outcome of the mistake, some people will just tidy up and move on. Others can’t help but dwell on even the smallest slip-up for days or weeks: it keeps them awake at night, makes them cringe every time they have a quiet moment to remember what happened. They may even turn to drink or develop an eating disorder to quieten a sense of embarrassment or regain a sense of control.
That’s because human beings have evolved to use quiet moments to reflect on our experiences, particularly bad ones such as making mistakes. Unfortunately, for some people, this evolved response sometimes gets out of hand.
If your clumsy employee is already beating themselves up about their error, the last thing they need is you making them feel guilty on top of it all. Equip them to process and learn from their mistakes with confidence and they are likely to become more competent and productive in the future. Not to mention the fact that it’s just a pleasant, neighborly thing to offer support to those around you when they’re unhappy – regardless of hierarchy!
And of course, let’s not forget that the cards are kind of stacked against employees, to begin with. They toil to make money for the business owner while taking home a meager wage that may bear little correlation to the quality and quantity of work they do. And they are expected to get things right every time when the scope for failure is so much wider than the nail-head scope for success. Often, they’ve been given inadequate training because CEOs are more interested in maximizing financial returns rather than investing in people and their community.
So how can you encourage them to stop obsessing over their mistakes? The first step, after offering your kindness, is to urge them to be kind to themselves. A mistake is a mistake; it doesn’t make them a loser or a failure, though those may be the terms they’re using to describe themselves, even if only with their inner voice.
You and they should stop referring to the mistake as a mistake and think of it as a learning experience. Mistake is a very blamey word. Try ‘breakage’ or ‘miscalculation’ instead. Pick your employee up on their negative language. If they say, “I made a mistake” ask them “but what did you learn?” or “how would you do things next time?”
If you find them still dwelling on the mistake later, urge them to take a break and get a change of scene – a walk or a coffee – or give them a task to get them up and about and distract their mind, such as the mail run. Aside from jogging their mind out of its self-destructive cycle, distraction can reduce fear by the effect it has on the brain at a neural level.
And instead of dwelling on the past, encourage your employee to write out (for themselves) a step-by-step plan as to how they will fix their mistake and learn from it in future. This activity should be framed as a development opportunity and not a punishment, so don’t make it mandatory – but let them know you support them and have their best interests at heart.
Finally, direct your employee to this guide to recovering from mistakes. It contains a number of ideas like those above to help move on from slip-ups and use mistakes as evolution intended: to make us stronger!
About the author: John Cole writes on behalf of NeoMam Studios. A digital nomad specializing in leadership, digital media, and personal growth topics, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.