May 03, 2018

7 Steps for Communicating Mistakes to an Employee

Mistakes are inevitable; we all make them.  Although, without having made mistakes within our lives, we might never have taken risks or learned something new.

Of course, while an error may sometimes result in something positive and new, mistakes in a professional setting can be costly – figuratively and literally.  The real issue then becomes, how do you handle mistakes and issues caused by an employee?


Utilizing the Situation to Your Advantage

As a manager, how you address problems caused by employees’ actions is considerably more important than the issue itself.  Any damage may have already been done, so having the benefit of the doubt for your employees’ intentions is vital.  Instead of simply taking disciplinary action, consider mistakes as a valuable tool and learning opportunity.  It’s a chance to utilize the situation to your team’s advantage, both as a trust- and respect-building discussion, and to more clearly define what your standards and expectations are for that employee.

Taking a positive approach in these situations means you need to be in the right mindset to discuss what went wrong.  For a manager, someone who is further trained and already understands how to prevent similar mistakes, it’s easy to overlook basic reasons to explain why what happened, happened, such as:

  • Inexperience or lack of training – A new or lesser experienced employee will not handle everything in the same manner that an experienced employee would.
  • Confusion or been misguided by someone else – Perhaps they’ve been trained, but for whatever reason, not well. This is an opportunity to clarify instructions and expectations.
  • Situational variables – There will always be the occasional spontaneous and odd situation, when an issue might not have been preventable at all. Even then, these should still be discussed to review how the employee could handle them better.

A one-on-one conversation with the employee regarding the mistake is crucial, to give him/her the chance to talk it out with you and ask questions.


Starting a Dialog

When you’re ready to meet with your employee, here are seven steps to host a successful conversation:

  1. Acknowledge the mistake – Ignoring that a mishap occurred won’t prevent it from happening again. Accept that it happened, guide your employee to do the same, and be prepared to discuss it with him/her directly.
  2. Practice patience – Leading this discussion with aggressive or frustrated language could put anyone on the defense. While it’s easy to be upset, especially if the mistake resulted in financial loss, this makes it extra important to approach the conversation with a positive mindset.  View it as an opportunity to guide your employee toward success.
  3. Make it a discussion – Present the situation as it stands to the employee and do stress that your expectations were not met, but then give them the opportunity to explain what may have happened on their end. Ask them questions, and make it a balanced dialog rather than a lecture.  It’s important to ensure the employee understands what went wrong and is informed about any negative outcomes due to this mistake, and you can’t ascertain their understanding without hearing from them.
  4. Ask them for feedback – During this discussion, prompt them to think about how things could have gone differently, and what would help them succeed in subsequent situations. Prepare to be an active listener.  The goal is to encourage them to think it out own their own, while you are simply a guide for this thought process.
  5. Point out what they did (or do) well – Employees want to know when they have met your expectations and have done things correctly. This is a moment for praise, not only to soften the blow of any criticism and discipline, but also to clarify any positive behavior you’d like to see going forward.
  6. Reiterate expectations and instructions – What are your expectations, and have they been clearly communicated at this point? Elaborate what outcome(s) you expect following this conversation, as well as the expected results from the employee going forward.  In some cases, you may want to detail a bigger purpose and the “why” behind some particular processes and/or instructions, and be prepared to answer any questions the employee may have.
  7. Encourage – Let the employee know this is a learning opportunity, and to continue working toward improving and developing themselves from this point. If the employee handled the situation well, as the learning opportunity it is, recognize them for this.  Later, when similar situations arise, discuss the similarities with the employee, in an effort to boost confidence and show them they know how to handle it.  Additionally, encourage some risk-taking, when appropriate, and challenge the employee to keep confronting problems head-on.


Personally and professionally, we cannot learn and grow without making some mistakes in the first place.  When you keep your focus as a manager on handling mishaps as positive opportunities, rather than failures, you’re bound to create a more proactive, successful workforce.

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