A few days ago, my oldest daughter came home from school with a bit of a dilemma. She got back her latest math assignment and noticed that one of the problems she had solved correctly was marked as incorrect because her answer wasn’t rounded up to the second decimal point. As it wasn’t stated in the problem’s instructions that the correct answer needed to be rounded up to a given decimal point, my daughter was confused as to why her response was marked wrong and asked me if I could look it over to help her figure it out.
Looking over her assignment, I saw that my daughter not only solved the problem correctly, but she was right that the problem didn’t ask students to round up their answer. So, I told my daughter that all she had to do was point this mistake out to her teacher so that she could correct the grade she got on her assignment. However, my daughter felt uncomfortable with the idea of talking about this mistake with her teacher and asked me if I could bring it up instead.
Given how my daughter has a really good rapport with her teacher, I was a bit puzzled as to why she was so reluctant about discussing this with her. As we talked about it more, it became clear that her hesitation arose from feelings of discomfort over having to tell her teacher that she had made a mistake in marking her assignment.
Now one of the things my parents taught me was the importance of showing respect and appreciation for our teachers given how they help to build our knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Naturally, this is an attitude I want instill in my children as well. However, I also want them to feel comfortable with approaching authority figures to point out when errors are made.
To help encourage my daughter to deal with this herself, I made her this deal – that she try to talk to her teacher about this error and if she finds herself struggling, she can give her teacher a note I’ll write to explain what we discussed. Although not exactly thrilled, my daughter nonetheless accepted this approach to resolve her dilemma.
Of course, it’s not just children who can struggle with having to point out mistakes being made by others, especially when it’s an authority figure like a teacher or parent. Employees can also feel uncomfortable bringing to the attention of others problems or mistakes they see being made, particularly if those responsible for them serve higher up in their organization.
But this is where leaders can make a difference by providing a suitable environment where their employees can bring up and deal with the mistakes that inevitably occur, regardless of whose actions were responsible for creating the problem.
To help you determine whether you’ve created such an environment for your team, here are five questions to ask yourself about how mistakes are perceived and dealt with in your organization:
1. Do your employees feel safe bringing problems/mistakes to your attention?
This might seem a bit dramatic, but what this comes down to is the level of trust and respect you foster through your leadership. Trust in that people know they can bring up these issues without fear of reprisals, recrimination or other negative outcomes. And respect in that they know they will be treated with civility, instead of being mocked or belittled, for bringing attention to this problem.
I remember working at one place where it was common knowledge that you had to gauge the boss’s mood before bringing any mistakes to his attention. If he was in the right mood, he’d be willing to help you fix the problem by providing the necessary resources. Otherwise, he’d focus instead on trying to find some way to pin the blame on you for the mistake given that you’re the one bringing it up. I’m sure it comes as little surprise that we spent more time putting out fires than we did preventing them given how it wasn’t worth the tongue-lashing we’d receive for pointing out mistakes before they became serious issues.
This is why it’s important that you create an environment where your employees feel comfortable in pointing out mistakes, even if the person making them is you.
2. Do you feel like you need to have all the answers?
Part of the challenge in being open to accepting mistakes is recognizing that it means you lacked the knowledge or insight with which to anticipate or avoid this failure. That’s why we need to recognize that being a successful leader doesn’t mean having all the answers.
Rather, the role of a leader is to gather around them those team members who either have the answers or know where to find them and using their expertise/knowledge to help leaders make informed decisions about the best route to take toward achieving their organization’s goals.
Indeed, the most liberating thing a leader can do for themselves is to demonstrate to their team they don’t have all the answers, and that they’re counting on their employees to help them find them.
3. Do you give credit or acknowledge your employees’ efforts to draw issues to your attention?
Let’s face it – whether you’re on the delivering or receiving end, it’s hard to deal with discussions about a mistake or failure that’s happened. That’s why it’s important that leaders express their appreciation to their employees for having both the willingness and the courage to bring mistakes to their attention.
One way to help facilitate this is to remind ourselves that by informing us of these mistakes, our employees are helping us to deal with these problems before they escalate into a more challenging issue.
By being appreciative when employees draw attention to mistakes that have been made, leaders can encourage their team to not simply ignore mistakes when they happen, but to instead reach out and get help to try and fix the problem. It also shows them that what they’re telling you matters and that you care about what they have to say instead of dismissing their concerns or input.
4. Are your actions focused on being right or doing right?
Naturally, our first reaction to the above question is to answer that we’re driven to do the right thing. However, I want you to look back on some of the past disagreements you had with some of the members of your team. Was the source of the disagreement the result of you wanting to do right or being seen as right by your employees?
Going back to my daughter’s math assignment, her focus when discussing this problem was not trying to prove that she was right; rather, she was trying to figure out what was the right way to solve the problem given how the teacher had marked it wrong. In other words, her goal wasn’t simply to get credit for having the right answer, but to understand what was the right way to solve the problem.
Remember that being a good leader doesn’t mean you’re always right; instead, it’s about committing to always doing what’s right.
5. What efforts/measures are you making to ensure that these mistakes don’t happen again?
When a mistake gets pointed out, the typical response is taking appropriate measures to attempt to resolve it, with the degree of intensity behind the effort being correlated to how much impact the error has on our day-to-day operations.
Unfortunately, as part of our motivation to resolve mistakes arises from our desire to have things ‘return to normal’, once a mistake is resolved, there’s a tendency to immediately move our focus onto other things, especially if there are other fires we need to be put out. From this vantage point, it’s not surprising that similar mistakes inevitably appear elsewhere within the organization.
That’s why it’s important for leaders to not only review the impact various measures have to correct these mistakes, but also examining the situation to understand what lead to the error being made in the first place and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
As for my daughter, the next day when she came back from school I asked her how it went. She told me that she talked with her teacher about her assignment and pointed out the error she had made in marking the assignment. Her teacher not only acknowledged her mistake, but she told my daughter how impressed she was with her for catching this mistake and bringing it to her attention. Her teacher then asked the class to check their assignments to make sure she hadn’t marked their answer incorrectly for the same question.
Before heading off to do her homework, my daughter reached into her knapsack and pulled out my note, still neatly folded, and said “Here, Papa. Turns out I didn’t need this after all.”