You’ve invested in your employees. Advertising a post, shortlisting, interviewing and training people costs time and resources, on top of the wage that you’re paying. You want to get a return on this investment. But because you’re employing human beings, not robots, they will make mistakes. Hopefully your selection and training process will be good enough to prevent very serious or extremely costly mistakes, but it’s certain that, at some point, someone will mess up. It’s a poor return on your investment if you fire someone every time a mistake is made, so how can you best help employees to learn when things go wrong?
Have clear expectations. This might mean making sure that people actually read the procedures manual. It certainly means making sure that all employees follow procedure; it’s often those who have been there longest who are likely to say “That’s how we’re supposed to do things – but this is how we actually do them.” It means supporting supervisors and junior managers, so that they have time to give clear instructions to new staff.
Give feedback when things go well. It’s clearly necessary to tell someone when they’ve messed up, but it’s also important to tell them when they’ve got it right. In part, this is down to positive reinforcement – you give a reward in terms of praise and recognition for the sort of behaviour you want to encourage – but if staff are used to getting regular feedback then it is easier for them to hear, and to learn from it, when that feedback is negative. If that’s the only feedback they get, they’re more likely to be defensive and resentful and to ignore it.
Use near misses as learning opportunities. Something that could have gone wrong but didn’t is often a better way to learn than actually messing up. Your employee is less likely to be stressed by having caused a problem, and you’ve got time to explain things rather than running around trying to sort everything out. Try to ask questions – “What do you think could have happened?” – rather than make statements. There’s lots of evidence that people remember something for longer if they discover it for themselves, and this holds true if they realise what could have gone wrong just as much as if they’d actually caused it.
Don’t attack them as a person. Calling someone stupid doesn’t help them to learn. If an employee has just lost you money by wasting resources or time, it’s a natural response to want them to feel bad. Just make sure that they’re feeling bad about what went wrong, rather than feeling bad about themselves. If they go home at the end of their shift convinced that they’re a terrible person, they’ll be less likely to learn anything the next day and more likely to start looking for another job.
Use collective wisdom. Most people have been in the situation where they’ve messed up in their first week at a new job, but been reassured by more experienced workers that everyone’s made the same mistake. Learning from errors doesn’t necessarily mean a lecture from a supervisor; make good use of pairing or buddy schemes, or get someone who’s made a mistake to shadow a more experienced colleague. Sometimes it’s easier to hear advice from your peers.
When things go wrong, talk about what will happen next time. You can explain the consequences of a mistake in terms of lost productivity or risk of accidents, but you don’t need to keep talking about what happened. Most people who make a mistake tend to focus on it afterwards; revisiting what went wrong just reinforces this. Instead, help the employee to talk through what they’ll do differently in future. This recognises that mistakes might happen again, and is much more useful for prevention than saying, “I’m sure you won’t do that again.”
There will be times when an employee makes mistakes that are too frequent or too serious, and there’s no alternative but to let them go. But that’s a very poor return on the investment that you’ve made in them. It’s much better to give positive and negative feedback based on clear expectations, to encourage them to learn from near misses and from the experience of colleagues, and to help them see themselves as people who are capable of learning and doing better next time.