What To Do When Good People Make Mistakes

The Strategic Coach Team
Hero image

In a recent conversation with Dan Sullivan, a client asked how Dan would handle a situation where a team member who thinks they’re doing the right thing actually does the wrong thing. The client said he realized that getting mad and expressing his frustration would almost guarantee that the team member would be defensive and less engaged for the next week, lowering productivity. “What’s a more effective way to deal with this?” he asked Dan.

It’s not uncommon for communication to go astray. Misunderstandings happen. The question is, how do you handle it? Over the course of the conversation, Dan shared some of his own learning about how to handle breakdowns—or “train wrecks” as we affectionately call them.

One option that usually doesn’t work, but that may be tempting in the moment, is to express your frustration with the person who didn’t “get it.” While this might make you feel better, it doesn’t help the situation for the recipient of your aggravation. Rather, it leaves them feeling bad, defensive, and most likely angry with you. Is this the recipe for a productive, energized, and engaged team member? No. The reactive approach, while momentarily satisfying, doesn’t get you the results you ultimately want.

What do you do then?

Dan’s philosophy, developed over the years, is that when mistakes happen, “it’s usually the system, not the person, that’s the problem.” Rather than blaming the person, he looks to see what he could have done differently or how the system could be improved to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

We like to think of ourselves as a learning organization. As an entrepreneurial company, circumstances are always changing and we need to adapt to them, so learning from our experience is our primary way of looking at things. A source of great trust and respect for many team members at Strategic Coach is our demonstrated belief in “progress, not perfection,” which makes it okay to make mistakes as long as learning happens as a result.

To maximize your collective learning, you may need to look first at what part you had in the misunderstanding. What could you have done differently? What assumptions did you make that didn’t turn out to be true? What can you learn?

Transforming the experience.

In Strategic Coach, we have a thinking process called The Experience Transformer that teaches you how to capture this learning. This exercise allows you to succinctly describe the issue—without wallowing in it—and then quickly get to what worked and what didn’t work.

By having an open attitude and willingness to learn, you won’t get caught up in playing the “blame game,” leaving room to focus on finding a new, better way of getting things done. And isn’t that what you’re really all about anyway?

Just going over what worked often defuses hard feelings because even in the worst of situations, something worked. It wasn’t a total disaster. The “What Didn’t Work” section of The Experience Transformer is a dispassionate, clear, factual analysis of what didn’t go according to plan and the consequences of that.

At Strategic Coach, we fill this out as a team, and often it’s the person who “messed up” that states the consequence, along with what was missing for them that caused the problem.

This gives an important context to what happened and why. Always, as we work through it, we see that we missed a crucial step or made an incorrect assumption. This allows us all to learn and get wiser as a result.

This common understanding reengages our teamwork and allows us to work together on how to make it better the next time. During this process, we brainstorm what we could do differently and then align on the core strategies that we’re committed to implementing.

Common pitfalls.

Having done many Experience Transformer exercises over the years, we’ve noticed that there are two common sources of project breakdowns worth noting: Rugged Individualism and not “empowering” the project.

Being a Rugged Individual.

When we don’t get the result we were looking for as a team, it’s often because someone was being a Rugged Individual. This usually looks like one of us trying to do too much, not delegating, or not leaving enough time for other team members to fully contribute their talents and creativity.

Choose a recent “breakdown” on which to do an Experience Transformer with your team. The context that you’ll want to set is that this exercise is to help you learn what to do differently next time, not an opportunity to blame others. You’ll need to keep your emotions in check and stay focused on coming up with creative solutions. If needed, bring in a neutral third party who can help facilitate a successful conversation.

The Empowered Project.

Another common cause of breakdowns is the entrepreneur not “empowering” the project. This means that you may not have taken the time to connect with the person, talk through the significance of the project with them, or plan out and answer questions about the timing and execution. As a result, the team member you entrusted with the result wasn’t clear on the importance or other key details of the project and acted the best they could with their limited understanding.

Dan has learned from experience that he needs to invest the time up front to get his project managers fully on board and aligned with his vision. He makes a point of sitting down with his two project managers to go over his projects. Together, they figure out the plan, the timing, and the significance, and negotiate any changes in advance. Investing the time to do this at the beginning saves a lot of time, misunderstanding, and grief later on. It doesn’t ensure that things always go perfectly, but it does put the teamwork and partnership in place for everything to go as well as it possibly can.

So, when you know you have a good person but they’ve made a mistake, instead of getting angry and disempowering them for the next week, empower the project, and make sure you regularly do an Experience Transformer to fine-tune your systems. By doing these two things, you’ll have fewer breakdowns, you’ll maximize your team’s talents, and you’ll end up with the best results possible.

Great businesses are built on great teamwork. For more tips on creating teams with open attitudes geared toward learning and growth—check out our Team Success podcasts.

Most Recent Articles