Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

5 Questions To Figure Out How Well You Manage Mistakes

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.”

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  1. On June 13th, 2011 at 10:29 PM Tanmay Vora said:

    You provide some great pointers here Tanveer and I loved the way you have related your daughter's school incidence with how people operate in an organization.

    Pointing out mistakes (not as "mistakes" necessarily, but as "opportunities of improvement") is very important to build a culture that constantly improves.

    One of the biggest leadership challenges is to build an environment where people feel strongly about their work and think about improving things around them. In most of the cases otherwise, people simply cruise along to do what they are asked to do without thinking much about improvements.

    You are a thoughtful dad. Such small experiences play a huge role in shaping up their thinking and confidence in the long run.

    Thanks for sharing this piece.

  2. On June 24th, 2011 at 6:02 PM @jshsmn said:

    Fantastic comment! I couldn't agree more. Fostering an environment where people feel strongly about their work, improving things around them, and dreaming bigger is key.

    The challenge comes when other managers in your organization take more of a reactionary approach to situations and leadership in general. I find that that these leaders often have employees that do just enough to get by and typically won't even bother to mention mistakes out of apathy, laziness, or fear. This doesn't quite make for a winning organization.

  3. On June 26th, 2011 at 12:22 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Joshua. The problem of leaders reacting, as opposed to reflecting, on the challenges/problems their team faces is certainly a major problem for most organizations as it narrows the scope of focus and limits the growth of our abilities to anticipate where we need to go next. Trying to just get mistakes out of our way so we can get going on emptying out our "in" boxes is a sure-fire recipe for continued problems, if not also a mediocre organization.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion, Joshua.

  4. On June 14th, 2011 at 4:43 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Solid post. I too like how you share stories about your daughters and create a post that is relevant to real world leadership. When I sit with clients during a planning process I share five axioms, the fifth being “Don’t fear failure. Expect it. Learn from it!” Bottomline: Great leaders tend to have a way to work with their team and turn mistakes into a learning experience. Consequently to Tanmay’s point, you build a culture that constantly improves.

  5. On June 14th, 2011 at 4:05 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim.

    In sharing such stories, I hope that it helps to reinforce the fact that leadership is not about getting others to follow your orders; rather, it's about helping them to develop their abilities and grow as an individual so that ultimately, whether it's a leader or a parent, your role is no longer necessary as they're able to manage their obligations on their own.

    As I've written elsewhere on my blog, one important function leaders have to serve within their team is guiding them toward how to frame such mistakes, from viewing them as a disaster to what Tanmay referred to as an opportunity to improve things. Doing so will, as you pointed out, encourage within the organization a culture of continual improvement and not simply resting on one's laurels.

    Thanks again, Jim, for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  6. On June 14th, 2011 at 11:29 AM @Lee_Silverstein said:

    As a new follower of your blog I am very impressed with the style and content of your writing. I enjoyed how you personalized this post with the story about your daughter. As a leader who never hesitates to admit when they make a mistake, I found your article quite relevant. Keep up the good work.

    Lee Silverstein

  7. On June 14th, 2011 at 3:41 PM Delena Silverfox said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    This is so refreshing, not only because it highlights the ways a leader really should be about solving problems (a good leader, anyway) but also shows a gentle way to help a child learn how to solve their own problems while still offering the help in case they need it rather than teaching them they need to run to someone else for everything and inherently do not possess the ability to take care of themselves.

    And whether it's your own child, or members of a team, the goal is the same: to empower them to solve problems and become involved in the process rather than needing someone else to "fix it" every time. Leadership is, among many things, about helping others to grow into better versions of themselves, not to create dependency and indecisiveness.


  8. On June 15th, 2011 at 3:45 PM Wally Bock said:

    This is a great use of an incident involving your daughter and her teacher to make important points about how you, as a boss, should act when someone points out one of your mistakes. As a bonus, you give us the positive example of the teacher.

    That's why I included this post in my weekly selection of top leadership posts from the independent business blogs.

  9. On June 15th, 2011 at 5:14 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Wally! It's always gratifying to see one of my pieces being selected as one of your top leadership posts for the week. I appreciate the support, Wally and thanks for curating these lists for readers to find some great reads on leadership and the workplace.

    By the way, it's great to see you here on my blog. Hope to see you here again soon!

  10. On June 15th, 2011 at 4:49 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Rabia. I'm glad you enjoyed this post.

  11. On June 15th, 2011 at 5:02 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi David,

    That is one of the problems we face if we limit ourselves to being the only source for answers. The fact that our employees are able to come up with better answers than we might is not a poor reflection of ourselves; merely a representation of the reality that our life experiences and knowledge provides us with some of the answers, but not all of them.

    Thanks David for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  12. On June 19th, 2011 at 11:48 PM Nipon said:

    Your story is truly brilliant.I myself sometimes hesitate to point out the mistakes to authority and the main problem is that most of the time they do not accept their mistake.Nobody is perfect and we should learn from our mistakes.

  13. On June 20th, 2011 at 11:26 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Nipon; I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. You're right that nobody is perfect and certainly the clearest sign of both maturity and confidence in your ability to lead others is being willing and able to accept when others point out your mistakes, especially when we realize that everyone in our team is after the same result – to ensure our collective efforts allow us to achieve our goals.

  14. On June 20th, 2011 at 8:59 AM Rita said:

    Hi Tanveer, your daughter's school incident is truly a great instance on this topic of managing mistakes. I'm glad I read this post today and I'm definitely going to share with my blog readers. They surely need this as much as I do!

  15. On June 20th, 2011 at 11:33 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Rita! I'm glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate your wanting to share this piece with your readers. I'm sure they'll enjoy and benefit from this story as well.

  16. On June 20th, 2011 at 11:24 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I think it's hard for any of to admit when we made a mistake, especially if we can't see the problem as clearly as those around us. Of course, leaders can sometimes have an even harder time if they feel that admitting fault will cause those around them to question their ability to lead others. However, the true mark of a leader is not being able to get it right every time; rather, it's your ability to always put what's best for your team and organization first, even if that means admitting you made a mistake.

    Thanks Shiva for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  17. On June 20th, 2011 at 5:33 PM Mario said:

    As a manager or a leader you don't want to show weakness or that you don't have all the answers. But we must don't confuse this aspect with not accepting we could be wrong sometimes and that's why you a have a team behind to support you and help you point out those mistakes.

    Great post.

  18. On June 21st, 2011 at 5:23 AM Sindoora said:

    Loved the post! Especially #4.

    There are so many bosses out there who are on a 'power trip', so to speak. They will always try to prove themselves right because they think they will lose some of their respect/power if they accede to being wrong. But what they don't realize is that by giving in when they're wrong, they are gaining more respect. It takes a lot of courage to admit you're wrong, and your employees will definitely appreciate your candidness. And besides, it will save you from 'cleaning up' the mess that your stubbornness is bound to lead to.

    – Sindoora

  19. On July 14th, 2011 at 9:31 PM Ana said:

    I was reading through your article, Tanveer, and couldn't help but apply the questions you posed to myself as a parent.

    Turns out they are quite helpful in many areas of life; not just business.

    I wonder if your daughter ever talked to her teacher…

  20. On July 15th, 2011 at 11:33 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Ana,

    Actually, she did. In one of the last paragraphs, I mentioned how impressed her teacher was with my daughter’s ability to pick up this error and the teacher’s willingness to bring it to the attention of the other students to make sure she didn’t make the same mistake on the other kids’ assignments. That itself encapsulates my point about how leaders need to be focused more on doing what’s right than on being seen as right. Indeed, in the case of my daughter’s teacher, this was a bigger indicator of how successful she was in her role because she had taught the concept to my daughter so well that now my daughter could independently assess whether an answer was right or not, instead of relying on her teacher to point it out. It’s easy for teachers to have the right answers because they wrote the lesson. But when the students are able to point out when a mistake is made, that’s when you know you’ve taught them well.

    Thanks again, Ana, for sharing your thoughts on this piece. Glad to hear these questions helped you on the parenting sphere as well.

  21. On July 23rd, 2011 at 10:52 PM @Jgblr said:

    Wow, Tanveer, reminds me of a similar incident with my son's math teacher. Only difference, was that the teacher explained why. Went something like "Son, you got the right answer, but you did not show me how". In India, there's a necessity to show out the 'steps' of reasoning while 'solving' a math 'problem'. Making the assumptions bare is a good habit to develop.

  22. On July 24th, 2011 at 12:01 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Joseph. I agree with you that it's important to recognize not just whether we get the right answer, but whether the means or route we took to achieve the result is the correct and most sound one. Advice that I think applies not just to school assignments, but to how we approach the process of problem solving both in business and in our personal lives. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion, Joseph.

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