“R” You Ready for Mistakes?

by Dr Greg Story

Ah … mistakes. That is a very tricky area for managers to handle. Their reactions vary, from spontaneous combustion to a passive shoulder shrug.

Most of the hot air about empowerment that wafts around the upper echelons of a firm is dissipated as soon as something major goes wrong. Before any debris attaches to them, managers and colleagues dash for the exits; corporate death squads show up to locate the guilty.

Here are some “R” solutions to help solve mistake-related disputes:

An idea for those who react with lightening speed: establish the facts, before the guilty are set free and the innocent punished.

Look behind the facts for motives, and start with the premise that each person is worth saving. Test each fact as they emerge.

Japan is a master class in hiding problems, denying responsibility and ducking for cover. So, expect to dig hard and long to find out what really happened and why.

It is to be hoped that there will be an existing pool of goodwill and mutual trust, based on a notion of fair treatment existing between the individual in question and their manager. If there is not, a separate article in its own right is needed.

For the rest of you, try putting the guilty party at ease and do your best to reduce their anxiety, beginning with honest appreciation and supported by evidence. Fake smiles, false praise and the hidden dagger are to be avoided. Instead, look for aspects of the individual’s behaviour that warrant appreciation—after all, not one of us is perfect, and few are evil through and through.

Reference the mistake or issue
Focus on the problem, not the person; play the ball, not the player. In your discussions, use “we” rather than “you” to depersonalise the problem. You may recall that it wasn’t, “Houston, you have a problem!”

Try phrases such as, “We have to find ways to fix this”; “We need to uncover the underlying issues”; “We need complete transparency and honesty to resolve this completely”.

The most effective perspective to take is that the action—not the person—was wrong. Allow people to explain what happened and gather facts and information, identifying what needs to be fixed immediately and for the future. Listen carefully for acceptance of responsibility—this will determine the next steps—and remain calm as the sequence of events leading up to the train wreck unravels.

Having dealt with various staff compliance violations over the years, my biggest insight was the need for early admission of a mistake and acceptance that a problem exists, leading to minimum bloodshed. Efforts to hide an error tend to exacerbate the problem, blowing it up out of all proportion and placing the person involved beyond the possibility of rehabilitation.

Restore Performance
To minimise the chances that an error will be repeated, reduce or eliminate the consequences and restore the individual’s ability to perform. Should the team member accept responsibility for the error, move on to effective questioning (not interrogation), active listening and personal coaching. Encourage the individual to suggest solutions and involve them in the decision-making process. This step is crucial to establishing ownership of the mistake.

However, should an employee not take responsibility for an error, the performance expectations of the manager should be restated, while stressing the importance of taking responsibility and, simultaneously, moving the individual towards being fully accountable for the mistake.

Mistakes, errors, slip-ups, failings—whatever one calls behavioural flaws of this nature—all tarnish our self-confidence and erode our spirit of determination and ability to embrace what is new and different.

As managers, we need to keep the organisation moving forward, which requires that we waste no time in getting the team member back on track.

To this end, the individual constantly must be reminded of their value to the organisation, its expectations of them, and the belief that theirs remains an important role. Further, they must be reassured that the organisation is behind them and will continue to provide a career path.

Expect this to be a hard sell, because cynicism rules.

At this point, it is not simply a matter of keeping the person on the payroll; their motivation and commitment must also be retained.

Be aware of the influence these activities have on the other team members who, as they look on, will surely be thinking, “There, but for fortune, may go you or I”. They want to see what the manager is doing and know what to expect should they ever experience the same.

Never forget that you are managing Japan’s Olympic-level representatives in boss-watching; your every nuance is read far and wide and, usually, misinterpreted!

Should you meet heavy resistance, particularly in the form of refusal to take responsibility for, or constant denial of, an error, you should move to Plan B directly below.

Restate the facts, stress the seriousness of the mistake, re-visit the organisation’s policy, and recount the solution—giving a fresh chance to reflect, correct and move on.

Should the above steps be ineffective and the individual still does not wish to take responsibility for their error, the situation may spiral into a death wish. At this stage, you should hold formal discussions of which you should keep a well-documented record in their file.

Further, if Plan B has not worked, and there is no progress in terms of the individual acknowledging accountability, move to Plan C. If your organisation is sufficiently large and flexible, it might consider reassigning the individual to another section of the firm. Otherwise, it may be necessary to remove the person completely.

In Japan, firing is a rocky road that is best handled generously to ensure an individual’s smooth transition out of the firm. If you can’t reach an amicable agreement that enables an employee to leave of their own accord, and you have the means, pay the money requested. The collateral damage, time involved, and wear and tear on everyone (especially you) will be less and, have no fear; your lawyers won’t be buying that charming villa near Firenze with the proceeds.

Should you not have the money, good luck! You will be entering a war zone, otherwise known as the Japanese legal system. There will be casualties on both sides—and no “R” solutions are available for that.

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