Say “Thank-you” to Mistakes

This post recently appeared in SmartBlog on Leadership:

As a leader,
what’s your first reaction when someone comes to you and tells you they made a
mistake? While you may or may not verbalize your thoughts, you may be thinking
to yourself:

  • Oh crap!
  • Seriously?!
  • What the hell were you thinking?
  • How could you be so stupid?!
  • OMG, how are we going to clean up this mess?

These are our
natural, normal reactions when we hear about mistakes. We are all hard-wired to
see mistakes in a negative way. Fight or flight. Mistakes are bad, mistakes are
a result of incompetence, mistakes should be avoided, mistakes need to be
punished, and too many mistakes will lead to failure and getting fired.

some leaders let their mouths get ahead of their brains and do blurt out their first reactions!

When that
happens, mistakes don’t go away – we just stop hearing about them. They go
underground. People are still making them but they are afraid to tell you and
get really good at covering them up. Or, even worse, they stop making them

And that’s the
last thing you want to happen as a leader!

Why? Because
mistakes can often be the by-products of innovation, empowerment, delegation,
development, change, and continuous improvement.

All of these
things involve doing things differently, doing things for the first time,
learning, and taking risks.

When an
employee brings a mistake that they have made to their manager, it also means
that they are self-aware, showing humility, and being accountable – all
positive behaviors that we want to encourage!

As leaders, we
need to train our brains to react to mistakes in a positive way, and to replace
those negative reactions with a more positive response. The easiest and most
effective way to do this is by saying “thank-you”.

That’s right,
the next time one of your employees musters up the courage to come to you and
admit a mistake they made, your immediate response should be “Thank-you for
letting me know”.

Your next three
questions should be:

1. “Please tell
me what happened?” This question makes sure you and the employee have all of
the relevant facts and a good understanding of the situation. Use open-ended
questions to get the what, why, when and how.

2. “What have
you done to fix it”? This question teaches your employees to be accountable and
take responsibility to fixing their own mistakes. If they have not taken action
yet, then the question should be “so what needs to be done to fix it?” Avoid
the temptation to jump in with your own answer, as you’ll miss an opportunity
to teach your employee to think for themselves.

3. “What did
you learn?” This question shifts the discussion to learning, with a positive
focus on the future.

When you learn
to reframe the way you respond to mistakes, you’ll create an environment that
encourages and rewards risking taking, continuous improvement, and development.

Note: credit
for saying “thank-you” to mistakes goes to David Marquet, former nuclear
submarine commander and author of
Turn the Ship Around.