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

failure success
Pixabay (CC0)

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.

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