Human Resources, Culture

How to Address Employee Mistakes without Crushing Innovation

February 19, 2015


One of the biggest challenges leaders of organizations face is how to address employee mistakes without crushing their ability to innovate and be creative. Thinking about the consequences of a mistake can incite feelings of disappointment or even anger in the leader overseeing the employee, but venting these emotions is unlikely to do anything to improve performance.

Our first instinct is usually to tell the person what they did wrong; however, studies show that a person’s response to criticism is typically negative. When people make mistakes, they already feel guilty, defensive, frustrated, angry, or any combination of those feelings.

If you create a work environment where people are afraid of making mistakes, it can crush creativity and innovation and they will not have the confidence to take measured risks to explore new ways of thinking and performing.

What’s the best approach to dealing with a mistake?

Here are five solutions-focused ways you can approach the conversation:

  1. Be strategic about choosing a time when the employee is less likely to be reactive or defensive.
  2. Diffuse the strong emotions that may be associated with poor performance (guilt, frustration, fear, etc.) by telling them they do not need to be overly concerned about the conversation or their job is not in jeopardy.
  3. Acknowledge that this may be an uncomfortable conversation and thank the employee for taking the time to speak with you.
  4. Focus on how to make the feedback conversation valuable to the employee by moving away from constructive criticism (politely telling the employee what they did wrong) and toward development.
  5. Respectfully ask the employee learning-focused questions, such as:
    • What did you learn from this situation?
    • How can we be better prepared for unforeseen roadblocks?
    • What can we do differently next time to achieve the desired outcome?
    • How can I help you move forward in confidence?

Allowing your employees to do the thinking and being there to help them learn more about themselves from the situation is the best way to make a positive difference in their learning and growth. This solution-focused approach will build trust and respect, and ultimately improve an employee’s thinking, which can then transform his or her performance.

Conducting Effective Performance Reviews