Employee Engagement: When Things Go Wrong

by | Best Practices, Employee Engagement


Mistakes happen! Business owners make them and employees make them. And just as important as fixing the mistake is how we handle the situation.

How we handle mistakes made by a staff member or a team of people can build trust or tear it down. (Of course, this is just as true for how we handle mistakes we make with customers. A well handled mistake can increase customer loyalty. A poorly handled one can destroy it!)

When Employees Make Mistakes

Several years ago I had an opportunity to practice what I preach, when a somewhat costly error was made by one of the leaders on a team I was responsible for.

The particular leader was responsible for overseeing an event we were running. A part of their responsibility included marketing the event. Unfortunately, in the process of sending out a marketing piece to thousands of potential attendees by mail, a critical mistake was made in the information provided and this resulted in us having to reprint and resend the corrected marketing piece out a second time.

I don’t recall the actual dollar amount but I do remember the mistake cost more than a few thousand dollars to fix.

The employee who had made the mistake was highly responsible and an excellent worker. This person was well liked by both staff and volunteers, and overall a valued team member who gave 110% effort in the work they did.

Look for Ownership

While the mistake cost the conference and organization  a significant chunk of cash, it was an unintentional oversight. The person responsible didn’t try to cover up the mistake, make light of it or try to place the blame on some other factor, company or person. They fully owned the mistake and were prepared for consequences.

When they phoned me to tell me about the error, the cost of the error and to apologize and explain what needed to be done to fix the problem, I was able to hear them out, acknowledge the problem and easily move past the problem to the solution. I didn’t waste time telling them they’d screwed up … they knew that. We moved immediately into ‘how do we fix this’ mode.

Avoid Prolonged Navel Gazing

We didn’t waste time navel gazing or talking about how much they’d cost the business. There was no point in having that kind of a conversation with them because nothing I could say could make them feel worse than they already felt.

Don’t Overreact

The difference in this scenario was the history of trust and responsibility this person had with me and the organization. This, along with their work history and record, made it easy to extend grace and move past the mistake quickly. The mistake wasn’t whitewashed but it was acknowledged for what it was: an unintentional oversight that had cost the organization money.

Is This A Pattern or An Aberration?

While this isn’t always the best way to handle a mistake, it often is. Certainly there are a few, not the majority, of employees who don’t care but this isn’t true of most. Most employees take pride in what they do, how they do it and the company they work for. Overreacting to mistakes won’t strengthen their regard or work for you or your company or how engaged they are at work. It will undermine their engagement.

Stick With The Facts, Determine Next Steps, Move On

Overreacting is pointless too with less enthusiastic employees. It is always better to stick with the facts, determine appropriate actions or consequences for the mistake and move on. That doesn’t mean there may not be serious consequences for the mistake. There may be! But, it is pointless to yell, berate, guilt, manipulate and/or bully those who have made a mistake. It’s better to stay calm, address the facts, determine any consequences, follow through on any consequences (if they’ve done the same thing before and consequences were stated) and move on.

How You Handle Mistakes Impacts Productivity & The Bottom Line

Employees, like all human beings, make mistakes from time to time. How you handle those mistakes with your employees will determine whether they become more or less productive, more or less engaged, more or less committed, etc. In other words, it will impact your bottom-line.

This article is updated from an earlier version.

To read other posts on Employee Engagement click here.