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Say “thank you” to mistakes

3 min read


As a leader, what’s your first reaction when someone comes to you and tells you they made a mistake? While you may or may not verbalize your thoughts, you may be thinking to yourself:

  • Oh crap!
  • Seriously?!
  • What the hell were you thinking?!
  • How could you be so stupid?!
  • OMG, how are we going to clean up this mess?

These are our natural, normal reactions when we hear about mistakes. We are all hard-wired to see mistakes in a negative way. Fight or flight. Mistakes are bad, mistakes are a result of incompetence, mistakes should be avoided, mistakes need to be punished, and too many mistakes will lead to failure and getting fired.

Unfortunately, some leaders let their mouths get ahead of their brains and do blurt out their first reactions!

When that happens, mistakes don’t go away — we just stop hearing about them. They go underground. People are still making them but they are afraid to tell you and get really good at covering them up. Or, even worse, they stop making them altogether.

And that’s the last thing you want to happen as a leader!

Why? Because mistakes can often be the by-products of innovation, empowerment, delegation, development, change, and continuous improvement.

All of these things involve doing things differently, doing things for the first time, learning, and taking risks.

When an employee brings a mistake that they have made to their manager, it also means that they are self-aware, showing humility, and being accountable — all positive behaviors that we want to encourage!

As leaders, we need to train our brains to react to mistakes in a positive way, and to replace those negative reactions with a more positive response. The easiest and most effective way to do this is by saying “thank you.”

That’s right, the next time one of your employees musters up the courage to come to you and admit a mistake they made, your immediate response should be “Thank you for letting me know.”

Your next three questions should be:

1. “Please tell me, ‘What happened?’” This question makes sure you and the employee have all of the relevant facts and a good understanding of the situation. Use open-ended questions to get the what, why, when and how.

2. “What have you done to fix it?” This question teaches your employees to be accountable and take responsibility to fixing their own mistakes. If they have not taken action yet, then the question should be, “so what needs to be done to fix it?” Avoid the temptation to jump in with your own answer, as you’ll miss an opportunity to teach your employee to think for themselves.

3. “What did you learn?” This question shifts the discussion to learning, with a positive focus on the future.

When you learn to reframe the way you respond to mistakes, you’ll create an environment that encourages and rewards risking taking, continuous improvement, and development.

Note: credit for saying “thank you” to mistakes goes to David Marquet, former nuclear submarine commander and author of “Turn the Ship Around.”

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.

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