Opinion by Paul Glen

People screw up; don’t make it worse

Managers need to be aware of the messages they send in reacting to an employee’s failure

Opinion by Paul Glen

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If you want your staff to perform well, one of the most important things you need to focus on is how you respond when they don’t perform well, or when they make mistakes. Why? Because in addition to ability and drive, good performance requires that people be willing to take the personal risks inherent in accepting ambitious assignments.

Aren’t people of ability and drive always willing to take risks to fulfill their own ambitions and meet the demands of their supervisors? Not always. Those two things — fulfilling their ambitions and meeting your demands — can come into conflict, especially when it comes to taking personal risks.

When you, as a manager, ask someone to meet an aggressive goal, the person accepting the challenge takes on personal risks. He may not be able to deliver on time or may have to give up personal time or even sleep to try. He may have to try innovative technical approaches that may not work out. Or he may have to deliver substandard work, such as code that is unfinished, unstable, untested or unable to handle foreseeable errors.

So when you ask an ambitious and able person to take risks, he knows that sometimes those bets don’t work out for him. He knows that, even if the last 10 times that he took similar risks he came out looking like a hero and earned your respect and appreciation, this time may be different. He might fail, with devastating consequences for his ambitions, your trust and even his self-confidence.

For your people to reliably take risks while knowing that things won’t always work out for them personally, they have to have confidence that the costs of failure are minor and the benefits of success are substantial. In other words, they have to feel safe taking risks.

And the only way your people learn about those costs and benefits is by observing you and other managers after failures occur. You can give them pep talks, hang inspirational posters and repeat all the vision statements you like, but those have virtually no effect on how safe they feel to make mistakes. They learn more about you as a manager and about the values of the organization that they work for by watching how you respond to their own and other people’s mistakes. Your observable behavior is the only thing that matters when your people assess the potential personal costs of taking on a risky assignment.

There are a wide range of possible responses to mistakes, and at least as many lessons that people learn from them.

Obviously, if you rant, rave and threaten, people learn that, in the short term, they suffer unpleasant and perhaps unfair treatment. If you stop giving people who fail important and challenging assignments, exclude them from the “insider” meetings or publicly humiliate them, they learn that the costs of failure are long term too. On seeing that, no one in his right mind will take those important assignments in the future. And if an employee is personally ambitious enough, he will probably leave, knowing that working for you isn’t a safe place to build a high-performing career.

If you go in an entirely different direction, stay entirely positive, thank the person for his efforts and publicly celebrate his attempt, people may not learn the lesson you want them to. Instead of learning that it’s completely safe to make mistakes, they may come to think that the assignment itself was never as important or urgent as they were led to believe, that you lie and manipulate them. They may avoid those assignments in the future, not because they are afraid of the consequences, but because it takes a lot of effort and emotional investment to take on these risky projects in the first place. And if they assume that you don’t really care about the projects as much as you portray, then they dismiss the possibility of there being an upside in it for them. The cost of attempting them isn’t justified by the rewards of success.

In my experience, people learn the best lessons when you are clear that your responses to the people who made the mistakes are distinct from your concerns about the consequences of the failure.

For the people, you need to show appreciation of their efforts and a calm commitment that you and they should learn from the experience together. You may also need to take responsibility for your own part in the failure to encourage them to take ownership of theirs. And they need to know that the esteem that you hold for them is undamaged.

For the failure itself, when the deadline is missed or the technical problem needs to be solved again from scratch, you need to show a calm determination to regroup, mitigate the consequences of the failure and plan for what comes next.

How you respond in a stressful situation, especially one in which you are disappointed, can affect the performance of your group for years to come. Think carefully about what you want people to learn when they feel vulnerable and uncertain when they have to bring you bad news about mistakes they have made.

is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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