To Err at Work Is Human, Cool Manager Response Is Divine

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By Genevieve Douglas

Severe reactions to mistakes in the workplace won’t reduce them and can exacerbate things, so employers should train managers to respond properly, consultants say.

“Mistakes have traditionally been responded to with punitive actions. But when you are punitive around mistakes, people start hiding their mistakes” and they can metastasize, Don Rheem, chief executive officer of employee engagement consultancy E3 Solutions, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 2. The way errors are dealt with in the workplace needs to be consistent across all managers and supervisors, so that employees don’t feel mistreated or unfairly punished, Rheem said.

Errors often happen because clear expectations weren’t set, or conversations didn’t take place between managers and employees that are essential to business goals, Stacey Engle, executive vice president at leadership development firm Fierce Conversations, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 4.

But mistakes should be seen as opportunities, because they can lead to better solutions for managers and employees alike, Engle said. Mistakes can improve not only work processes and employee development, but also the personal relationships among workers.

A recent survey of 1,300-plus employees found that more than 80 percent of respondents indicated miscommunication occurred in their organization very frequently, frequently, or occasionally.

When asked which group of employees they thought should be most responsible for reducing miscommunication, more than half (52.7 percent) of respondents said all employee groups and 32.5 percent said supervisors and managers. The survey was sponsored by Fierce Conversations in partnership with Quantum Workplace.

Consistency Is Key

Being consistent in the way employee errors are handled is also a necessity so employers can protect themselves against accusations of disparate or discriminatory treatment, attorney Carrie Hoffman, a partner in Gardere’s labor and employment practice in Dallas, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 4. Because mistake aren’t all equal, the situation can be complex for human resources departments, Hoffman said.

The big mistakes obviously need to be handled in a certain way because they can have significant consequences, and the small errors are often easy to brush off without much downside, she said.

“Where it gets more complex are those mistakes that fall in the middle of the extremes,” according to Hoffman. HR and managers need to be in sync when assessing the severity of employee errors to ensure consistency in the level of discipline prescribed, she said.

Training supervisors on this issue is essential, especially in terms of communicating a company’s expectations, Hoffman said. “HR needs to be the business partner and sounding board for managers, and managers need to take advantage of the resources available,” she said.

Have Tough Talks, but Leave Emotions Out

Practically speaking, HR needs to have conversations with managers about responses to mistakes before the mistakes happen, Rheem said. “We’re trying to get HR and leaders and managers to connect everything they do to a core value,” because it gives a guiding principle for managers to follow, he said. Basing disciplinary measures on core company values gives each employee a consistent response to situations that may arise, which in turn “is essential for fairness to employees and productivity,” Rheem said.

The kinds of conversation that need to happen should be based on the details of the error at hand, Engle said, such as whether it’s a first-time offense, a regular offense, or a major issue. For example, a first-time offense conversation should be relatively easy to have because it’s “more of a feedback conversation,” she said. It should involve an explanation of the events that led up to the problem, and how the employee should have acted differently.

When it’s a mistake that keeps happening, the manager needs to have “more of a confrontational conversation” that addresses the scope of the changes needed, Engle said. These conversations can be hard.

“Our balance between being punitive and lenient depends on whether the manager is addressing the actual issue or speaking from an emotional reaction to the mistake,” Engle said. Managers can’t show their frustration, anger, or confusion, she added.

The leaders of the organization are ultimately responsible for enforcing these management behaviors, Rheem said. Managers often find themselves adrift without the skill sets needed to best lead people, so they default to the dynamic they use in interpersonal relationships, he said. This doesn’t work as effectively in the workplace, he said.

If an organization wants supervisors to mirror strong communication skills in managing employees, they have to model that behavior from the top, Rheem said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tony Harris at

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