This post comes from a conversation I had with a reader regarding mistakes being made by good performers. While there were jokes about some silly screw-ups, the valuable part of the discussion came in our responses to them. People will make poor decisions and as managers, it is our job to respond in a way that corrects the behavior but also reinforces that the sky isn’t falling. I’m not talking about transgressions that are so severe that they require HR but rather those that should serve as learning experiences. As leaders we should focus more on the learning than the mistake – to often we vilify and then the opportunity for growth is mostly lost.
Anger or frustration are among the natural reactions when a normally high performer slips up. We are most surprised when our expectations are not met. And none of us likes the kind of surprise where you’re woken up at 3am because someone shot themselves in the proverbial foot. For a below average or average performer, a high profile mistake can be anticipated – people make mistakes and sh*t happens. While the same applies to high performers (they will make mistakes and sh*t happens), as leaders, we tend to turn a blind eye to this possibility. It is natural to expect high performers to do well in everything – but that’s far from reasonable. We must expect even our best team members to make mistakes once in a while. The fact that we are likely to have given these folks the high visibility projects will amplify the mistake but shouldn’t make our response more harsh. I support the notion that we should, in fact, do the opposite – our response should be softened.
The idea of softening response for high performers comes from an observation I have made – high performers are normally very hard on themselves. No one can consistently derive their motivation from external sources. The drive of a high performer comes from themselves and when s/he makes mistakes, they are normally internalized. Any external source of criticism (say, from a manager) is simply piling on at that point. When someone understands the mistake, that’s enough. All the yelling in the world won’t make the mistake go away. I also don’t like to dwell on issues over time. “Water under the bridge” is a popular phrase for this. I simply let it go unless it comes back again – consider the issue closed until a subsequent act opens it again. So if I’m not overly critical and I don’t bring up the issue to reinforce the message, am I simply a softy and coddle my high performers? Far from it.
Throughout my tenure in management, I have had high expectations for my team and no one feels that more than my outstanding performers. I expect more and reward for it. When mistakes are made, I choose to enforce the fact that it is over and done and nothing can change it. I don’t add weight to what I believe high performers are already carrying. Demonstrate to me that you comprehend the mistake and will learn from it and I’m done. Deny or make excuses and we’ll have an issue but that normally doesn’t occur. I find that focusing on what can be learned rather than the mistake itself is the important piece. You can’t go back in time and undo a screw up, only respond to it.
One example, from rather early in my career, occurred with a production financial system. There was a patch or some other system update underway and somehow rm / happened. Operating system, gone. The person at the keyboard was immediately dejected and pissed. My first response was wtf but I kept this to myself. My first words were simply, “OK, get your head in the game, I need you.” My reasoning at the time was simple. There was a lot of work to be done and I couldn’t do it without that person. Communication up and out had to occur while the technical work of restoring from tape (remember DLTIIIs?) went on. I needed focus and I needed the great performance I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I felt like Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction about his watch: “Bedside table, on the kangaroo!” The key was acknowledging that and moving on mentally. Getting from anger to fix-it mode as quickly as possible was key. Granted this is only one type of mistake – one quickly diagnosed with an obvious remediation plan – but I believe the approach is a good one regardless of the situation. Every second spent on anger is one that is taken from responding to the situation.