Several years ago I had an employee who made a decision I wouldn’t have made that cost me a lot of money. Nevertheless, he made what he thought was the right decision at the time and I backed him up 100 percent.
At the time, my company provided digital prepress services to professional portrait photographers. One particular customer was unhappy because we hadn’t done some pretty extensive custom work that had neither been ordered nor payed for. Because I had empowered my employees to make decisions and meet customer expectations, when my employee agreed to do the additional work to make the customer happy, I had no recourse but to bite the bullet and pay for the work.
Employees sometimes do things we might not have done had we been on the other end of the phone or in front of the customer. It’s a fact of life. Amy Rees Anderson wrote about this last week in Forbes, “As a business leader, I found that one of the scariest things to do was give people the freedom to make mistakes,” she writes. “While mistakes allow individuals to grow, they can also be very costly to any company. Scared as I was, I knew that truly great leaders found ways to allow their people to take these risks, and I genuinely wanted to be a great leader. I wanted to help my employees grow. So I set out to discover how to accomplish this without placing my company in jeopardy.”
Anyone who has owned a small business can relate to this. Mistakes are expensive. Too many mistakes and you’ll likely “teach” your employees right out of business.
Nevertheless, mistakes are also a part of life. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned a thing or two about mistakes. Some from watching others make them, some from watching how leaders deal with them, and many times from mistakes I’ve made myself. Here are the highlights:
- There’s nothing you can do about it, mistakes happen: No matter how hard you try, how well you train, and how dedicated you are to being mistake free, mistakes happen. Sometimes it’s because people aren’t paying attention, but often it’s because people are trying to step up and perform at a higher level—many times outside of their current skill set. If people aren’t making those mistakes, maybe you have a bigger problem. If everyone is playing it safe so they don’t make mistakes, you are likely on the fast-track to becoming irrelevant. Did you know that Sticky-Notes® were a mistake? Imagine what our desks would look like without the mistake that later became a Sticky-Note? It doesn’t matter whether you call them Sticky-Notes or Post-it Notes, Dr. Spencer Silver was actually trying to make a super-strong adhesive for 3M, but instead discovered a “low-tack”, reusable, pressure sensitive adhesive that was originally characterized as a solution without a problem. Mistakes not only happen, sometimes you might even want them to.
- People learn from mistakes: At least, great employees learn from their mistakes. What’s more, as Anderson suggests, they own them, fix them, and try to put things in place so the same mistake doesn’t happen again. Problems arise when the same employee makes the same mistake over and over again without making any effort to fix the error. Once we had solved the above-mentioned problem with our unhappy customer, we spent some time talking about other ways to deal with similar situations that could arise in the future. Ultimately, there was a communication problem between the photographer, their customer, and what was shared with us. We came up with a plan to try to nip a potential problem in the bud, before it had an opportunity to become a bigger problem. Employees make mistakes, but great employees learn from them.
- Beating up on an employee who has made a mistake is a waste of breath: Most people aren’t looking for opportunities to make mistakes. In fact, once they realize they’ve made a mistake, they are likely harder on themselves than you are. I’ve made my share of mistakes over the years (still do in fact) and I feel the personal pain of every one. I don’t see much use in heaping blame and shame on an employee who has goofed up. Better to spend the time helping identify what to do next time and how to avoid a mistake in the future. I’ve always appreciated the boss who didn’t focus on how stupid the mistake may have been or what a bonehead I was to have made it. Sometimes working together to figure out the problem was incredibly helpful and often brought to light the reason(s) for the mistake in the first place. There are times when an employee just doesn’t seem to care about mistakes and carelessly goes from mistake to mistake. In those instances you might need to find another employee. I’ve found those instances to be few and far between.
Although I still make mistakes from time to time, hopefully they aren’t the same mistakes I made early in my career—that’s not to say that related mistakes don’t show up now and again. Fortunately, I’m usually the one who catches them. Many small businesses try to run on paper-thin margins these days, making mistakes very costly. Maybe a more realistic approach is to look at margins over mistakes, since we all make them—even the boss.