When Your Employee Makes a Mistake

When I was in fifth grade, my parents transferred me to a new school. I hated being the new kid, but at least Barbara, the girl next to me, was new too. Then, one day, to everyone’s horror, she wet her pants in class. No one, not even me, could look at Pottypants Barbara without thinking of that embarrassing moment, and she soon transferred to another school.

The workplace is full of Barbaras, just with grownup mistakes. As a leader, you may find that when an employee makes a mistake, it’s hard not to view them through the perspective of that mistake for the rest of their career.

Jeff Haden of Inc. com tells about a time when one of his employees at a book publishing company made a small but important mistake. Although the company was able to rectify the error, it cost them over $100,000, and Haden was never able to look at that employee the same way again.

Yet in retrospect, he realized that by seeing that worker as the one who had made a huge mistake, Haden had missed seeing the rest of the person–and probably had mismanaged him too. Just because the man had made a mistake didn’t mean he wasn’t still an outstanding employee, and it didn’t mean he shouldn’t be eligible for promotion. It just meant he was human. Haden realized that as a leader, forgiveness could be the most powerful tool he possessed.

Unfortunately, “forgiveness is rarely discussed or formally woven into a company’s corporate culture,” says David K. Williams, serial entrepreneur and author of The 7 Non Negotiables of Winning: Tying Soft Traits to Hard Results. It’s no wonder employees keep looking for a better place to work–they are tired of being subjected to constant negative scrutiny. Yet forgiveness has proven to be a powerful retention tool at his current company, Fishbowl.

Rather than focusing on forms for monthly evaluations, disciplinary action, corrective counseling, 360-degree reviews, and exiting, all of which highlight a person’s mistakes, Fishbowl has committed to teaching, expecting, and practicing forgiveness. The result has been higher retention, off-the-charts loyalty, and employee engagement. Eliminating forms and processes that focus on what a person does wrong and practicing forgiveness helps people be better at what they do. Employees who make a mistake learn that the company is willing to help them overcome it and learn new skills to keep from making the same error again.

“Forgiveness restores hope and productivity in the workplace. Not forgiving creates separation,” admonishes Williams. “When we judge others, we must also look at ourselves and be honest about what we haven’t been able to forgive in ourselves.  This must occur first to become an effective forgiver.” A negative culture void of forgiveness becomes driven by fear, which necessitates those forms for monthly evaluations, disciplinary action, corrective counseling…you get the picture. Who wants to spend time and resources highlighting people’s mistakes when you could be incentivizing them instead?

If forgiveness is too warm and fuzzy a term for some business-minded people (after all, forgiveness isn’t a typical business term!), here’s another take on it from Scott Kuethen, our CEO. Doing business, by its very nature, involves making mistakes in varying degrees. It’s how we learn. The kind of forgiveness we’re talking about here isn’t about being offended–it’s about whether you modify your expectations of a person after he or she has made a mistake. Do you look at the overall person, taking into account his or her entire performance, personality, and contributions, and help him or her learn to be a better employee for having made the mistake?Or do you fail to see his or her better qualities from then on and refuse to promote him or her, as Haden did?

Such modification has a name, according to Wikipedia: “The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance…A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.” In other words, if you don’t continue viewing people as capable (what Haden and Williams are calling forgiveness), your low expectations of them could actually cause them to underperform!

How do you tend to see an employee after he or she has really messed things up? Is it possible that he or she is a great employee who, just like you, is only human? If it’s true that practicing forgiveness can increase employee loyalty, engagement, and retention, perhaps it’s time to stop letting that mistake color your view of an otherwise capable team player. And who knows, if you’re successful at creating a culture of forgiveness, you may even be the recipient of forgiveness yourself one day. After all, everyone needs a second chance sometime. Just ask Pottypants Barbara.

Have you ever made a hiring mistake? Read What Went Wrong and learn how you can do better.

Do you need help acquiring top contract or direct hire professionals? Let Amtec find you the best candidates, set you up to successfully interview them, and assist with offer negotiations, reference checks, and background checks. Click here or call (714) 993-1900 to start your search.

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