Employee Motivation – 5 Steps to Apply When Mistakes Occur

by Howard Shore, Date: Nov 12, 2009

Employee Motivation – 5 Steps to Apply When Mistakes Occur

The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make, for the more new things he will try. I would never promote to a top-level job a man who was not making mistakes … otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.
– Peter Drucker, leadership expert

What do you do when you make a mistake? How do you feel?

How do you react when others mess up? How do you make them feel?

Do you find a way to gain benefit from mistakes and prevent them from taking you and/or your organization off track?

As an executive coach, I find many business owners, CEOs, and other leaders that continue to recycle employees who failed to make perfect decisions and act properly every time. On the surface you might be thinking, how big was the mistake? Many of these executives also use the cliché, “We pay them the big bucks NOT to make mistakes.” When you read my upcoming article, “Passing the Buck – Taking Responsibility for Mistakes,” you will see why blame is typically being placed on the wrong people. Worse yet, the leaders who don’t tolerate errors typically hold people to standards higher than those that they themselves achieve and attainable by less than 1% of the population, if that much. These are the very same leaders who cannot understand why their employees are not motivated, the same leaders who typically offer better-than-average compensation to keep people, yet still find it difficult to retain or attract top talent.

In a well-run organization, you should expect that the more “senior” the executive or leader is, the more mistakes he is likely to have made. As Peter Drucker says in the above quote, if they are not making any mistakes, they are mediocre at best and should never reach the senior ranks. The higher the position, the more responsibility, the greater the range of decisions and issues, and the more likely that mistakes will occur. It does not matter how many battles a leader has fought and won … no one can possibly know or have seen everything. The world, people, competition, and issues are constantly evolving, and so must leaders.

Even the greats like Jack Welch provide volumes of examples of when they have made poor decisions, handled a person incorrectly, misread a situation, and just did things that their bosses disapproved of. It is human nature and part of the game of business. Imagine that Jack Welch’s bosses ignored the great things he did and only saw his mistakes. They would have stifled and eventually lost one of the greatest leaders of the Fortune 500.

When problems occur, the challenge faced is not the mistakes, but the attitude towards them. Past errors, failures, and negative experiences do not inhibit the learning process – they actually contribute to it. Some of the best products in the world were the result of mistakes, and some businesses emerged from events considered mistakes. Here are some examples:

  • In 1905, eleven-year-old Frank Epperson left his fruit flavored soda outside on the porch with a stir stick in it. The drink froze to the stick and tasted good. He called his treat the Epsicle. Eighteen years later, in 1923, Epperson applied for a patent for a “frozen ice on a stick” called the Epsicle ice pop, which his children re-named the Popsicle. In 1925, Frank Epperson sold his famous Popsicle to the Joe Lowe Company of New York. Good Humor now owns the rights to the Popsicle.
  • Post It® Notes was a mistake that turned into big business. They are probably all over your computer at work. You use them at home to post the shopping list on the fridge, to leave a telephone message where it will be seen, or to flag a page in a catalog. This product innovation was actually considered a mistake since it was an adhesive that was not sticky enough for the project then at hand. Now it has become an office-supply staple produced in a myriad of sizes and colors.
  • One more well-known mistake was New Coke. New Coke was the unofficial name of the sweeter drink introduced in 1985 by The Coca-Cola Company to replace its flagship soda, Coca-Cola or Coke. Properly speaking, it had no separate name of its own, but was simply the new version of Coke, until 1992 when it was renamed Coke II. Public reaction to the change was devastating, and the new cola quickly entered the pantheon of major marketing flops. However, the subsequent reintroduction of Coke’s original formula led to a significant gain in sales.

Does the way a person respond to a mistake define him/her as a leader? Leaders who regularly punish and criticize people for mistakes, regardless of position, will actually reduce their personal power within an organization. The leader will eventually lose the respect of others, reduce motivation, and hold back the company. Moreover, by not utilizing mistakes as a learning tool, one is persisting in mediocrity, creating an environment where people will “play it safe” and “do things the way we always have” in order to avoid disfavor. Leaders might verbally tell people to “think out of box” and/or reinvent their positions; however, actions, body language, and tone can speak much louder than the words.

By attacking others for mistakes or mistakenly finding that it’s “easier just to do it myself,” a leader prevents others from learning what they are capable of becoming. Or, if a leader depends on someone else to prevent the possibility of failure, they will find that they are actually preventing themselves from developing leadership. Further, many leaders make the mistake of trying to be involved in every decision so that mistakes will not happen. All they accomplish is to make a bunch of people depend on them and stifle their organization. They need to stop taking themselves so seriously, and let their people develop.

Mistakes and errors are necessary steps in the learning process and can be a powerful tool in motivating employees to help take an organization to the next level. Reviewing errors should be a means to an end – not an end in itself. Once they have served their purpose, mistakes should be forgotten. No one enjoys making mistakes, but everyone makes them. Your leadership progress is determined by your attitude toward yourself and others. “Failure” is a state of mind, but when leaders view errors as learning experiences, organizations bounce back even stronger.

Apply these Five Steps when mistakes occur:

  1. Get the Facts – Learn all you can about the mistake.
  2. Reflect – Understand what might be done differently in the future and determine how to turn this into an opportunity for you and others to learn and to make the organization stronger.
  3. Communicate – Positively communicate what has been learned and what should happen in the future.
  4. Reassure – No one likes to make mistakes. Reassure those involved in the mistake that you are on the same team and that you view mistakes as progress.
  5. Forget – Do not dwell on past mistakes. Move on and think positively as to how you will bounce back even stronger.

Review our website to understand how an executive coach or business coach can help you increase the success of your career and business or call Howard Shore at 305.722.7213, or e-mail me at shoreh@activategroupinc.com.

Reference and excerpts taken with permission from Leadership published by Resource Associates Corporation, Mohnton, PA.