Follow this three-step process when responding to your team’s mistakes:
1. Dig for facts. Upon learning of a serious error or bottleneck in the system, express your desire to fix what’s broken. Don’t feel a need to make hasty predictions of who or what’s causing the mishap; keep your opinions or speculations to yourself and keep an open mind. Say, “Our first step is to gather all the facts so that we can assess what happened. I’ll need everyone’s help with this.” Invite all your staffers—including those individuals who may have played a role in creating the problem—to shift into investigative mode and feed you information. Emphasize that once you’ve collected the facts, you intend to learn how to prevent such problems in the future, not dwell on the past and find fault.
2. Play the czar. As you get a better idea of what happened, take charge. Don’t keep asking your staff for their thoughts or suggestions about how you should handle the situation. Managers who love consensus-building and employee participation can fall into the trap of inviting their workers to opine about what they think needs to be done to repair the damage. While that may sound harmless or even well-intentioned, it can lead employees to put a fake “spin” on past events in an effort to hide their failings or shift the blame. It’s wiser to draw your own conclusions and then meet privately with those individuals who erred.
3. Take responsibility. Even if you determine that one or more of your employees made major mistakes, acknowledge that you’re not blame-free. “Whenever someone screws up, I remind them that I’m responsible for their performance—that I’m held accountable for them,” says a VP at a mortgage- servicing company. “Then they realize that I’m not scolding them as much as alerting them that we’re all in this together. That makes them less defensive and more willing to improve.”
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