A sales representative working in an outbound sales role makes his daily calls—talking to his trusted customers and potential new clients.  He reaches a familiar client, a client with whom he has done much business with in the past.  The client urgently orders from the sales rep, suggesting he forgot to order the product the previous week.  The sales rep hesitates, however, he expedites the sales process because he is all but certain his company can help; the order can be filled, processed, and shipped in time to help his client, the sales representative makes the sale for $10,000 and profits $3000.

In the sales reps decision to expedite the process, he has implicitly considered and effectively discounted the possibility that another sales representative may have a deal already working, or that management may have a desired markup on the product.  A mistake was made because the owner had promised this material to another vendor– the sales rep did not ask the necessary questions and now another company may not receive the needed product on time, although they had called promptly.

Let’s consider the accountant, working long hours inputting and calculating, following policies, procedures, and attending continuing education classes.  She looks at one data entry point, and a question emerges.  She says to herself, “that number does not look right.” After looking deeper at the spreadsheet, she realizes her mistake—she has been entering data and the calculation she programmed months ago is incorrect.  Every report driving from that report has been inaccurate, has been wrong.

Mistakes.  The human condition.  Everyone makes them, yet how we react and rebound is incredibly different.  How we react and rebound is, yes, partially a construct of our upbringing, emotional intelligence, our level of resiliency.

But to you Mr. or Mrs. Leader, I ask this question:  Have you done your job in creating a psychologically safe environment for your employees to be human and to make mistakes?  I think most of us will agree, we learn from failure; yet, we also punish failure with real or perceived consequences.

To you Mr. or Mrs. Mistake Maker, I ask this question:  Have you considered how valuable your mistake may be when considering the opportunity you are providing for training, dialogue, team learning, and personal growth?

There are theories to help explain reactions to mistakes by both the mistake maker and the authority figures involved.  Some of the theories you may find interesting and related to this topic include the social justice theory, procedural justice theory, and the interactional justice theory.

So, how do you create the environment to push creativity, new thought, innovation, and change?  Well, talk to your people.  Here is what we have done.  We conducted several small meetings to pass the message that we are a termination free zone for associates who make mistakes.  The exception to the rule includes deception, fraud, and dishonesty.  Beyond this short list of exceptions what would make you compelled to terminate a world-class employee who made a mistake?  The dollar amount?

Let’s talk about the dollar amount for a moment.  If you have no protections in place to safeguard poor decisions from costing you, let’s say $10,000 or more, then the mistake is yours.  Yes—you read that right.  The mistake is yours for not safeguarding your assets from human error.  Let it be a lesson for both you and your associate who made the $10,000 error—oh, and the entirety of the organization.

So, how should you handle making a mistake at work?  My answer is quite simple.  Fess up to the mistake, and then take the role of training others how not to repeat the same mistake.  And, should you face an environment where learning is not the reaction, then maybe the mistake actually started when you accepted a position there and the fix might be looking for new work.


Best of luck!

Dr. Scott