October 3, 2023

Small Business Advice

How to deal with mistakes in the workplace

"If you are not making any mistakes, then you're not doing anything." ~ John Wooden

Jerry Osteryoung | 2/21/2015

Mistakes are a natural part of being human. We all make them each and every day. Nobody feels good when they make mistakes, but they can teach us valuable lessons.

Mistakes allow us to figure out alternative and better ways of doing things. Consider, for example, how many times you thought you were taking a shortcut to a destination only to have it turn out to be more like a long cut. Sure, it took you longer than you wanted, but in the end, you learned a way not to go.

Since mistakes are part of the human condition, you can be certain your workers are going to mess up. You can see these inevitable slipups as tragedies or you can see them as blessings. The choice is yours.

Without question, mistakes can be very costly -- even potentially dangerous. The results can be catastrophic, for example, if an aircraft mechanic makes a mistake while fixing a large commercial jet engine. On the other hand, inadvertently shipping two inexpensive, small parts to a customer instead of one is inconsequential by comparison.

Large or small, no one likes making mistakes, so how great would it be if you could just stomp out all errors completely? Pretty great, right?

Actually, I do not think that would be good at all. Mistakes allow workers to grow by learning from them. As workers learn, they begin making more valuable contributions to an organization rather than just following the rules.

On one occasion, an employee of mine came to me for help with a decision. She was concerned about spending $200 and wanted me to tell her what to do. I asked her what she thought, and she recommended an alternative that I knew was flat wrong. However, I allowed her to make the mistake because I knew she would grow so much more from that experience than she would if I stopped her.

The bottom line here is that real growth occurs when mistakes are made. Just think about your own life. When did you learn the most? In my life it has been those times when I failed and had to figure out how to avoid failing in the future.

This is not to say that all errors are good. In some parts of an organization, errors are much more damaging. For example, you do not want errors in customer service or marketing because both are much too critical to your business. However, you might be willing to allow errors in accounting and HR. These are generally going to be less costly errors.

The best way to handle errors is to understand they are just going to happen. This is the nature of life and people. Think of errors that have occurred for the first time as wonderful coaching opportunities. Rather than getting upset, go over what can be learned from them and how to prevent them in the future.

These first-time errors are understandable, but errors that occur a second or third time are more troubling. You will need to investigate why an employee would make the same mistake twice.

While some errors are valuable for the learning opportunities they provide, you do not want mistakes all the time. To help reduce errors, you want to have a safety net in place to ensure critical mistakes cannot happen again.

Now go out and make sure you are not stifling your staff by being intolerant of any mistakes. Some errors should be tolerated if they lead to an important employee lesson.

You can do this.

Dr. Osteryoung has directly has assisted over 3,000 firms. He is the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship (Emeritus) and Professor of Finance (Emeritus) at Florida State University. He was the founding Executive Director of The Jim Moran Institute and served in that position from 1995 through 2008. His newest book co-authored with Tim O'Brien, "If You Have Employees, You Really Need This Book," is a bestseller on Amazon.com. He can be reached by e-mail at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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