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This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company now at

What do you do when an employee makes a mistake?

How a leader corrects mistakes can impact the degree of employees' fear and their level of concern when they make an error.

Correcting is when a leader reacts by trying to improve performance or results, or to get an employee on track with a defined process, rule or policy.

An organization's culture can often influence how a leader deals with mistakes. For example, a learning culture is often open to employees failing, considering it as a part of growth, while a command-and-control culture has less tolerance.

In an eight-hour day, managers who are engaged proactively with their team are viewed as leaders who will point out both what's being done well and areas to improve.

How effectively a leader corrects behaviour impacts how employees respond. Some examples:

Compliance: A leader wants an employee to concede and acknowledge that he made a mistake, with no evidence of learning, and fear is present.

Competency: A leader is interested in ensuring an employee understands the why, and has the knowledge and skills to improve their competency to reduce the risk of further gaps without feeling fear.

The purpose of this microskill of correcting is to provide leaders with a simple game plan for correcting mistakes that promotes learning without fear.

A leader needs to be open and accept that mistakes will happen. No employee or leader is perfect all the time. Your expectation level and tolerance for mistakes will define the degree of concern you attach to a mistake.

When an employee makes a mistake, leaders are advised to avoid being blinded by cognitive bias – automatic thinking errors that can drive unproductive behaviours such as:

Anchoring bias: Accepting the first piece of information heard as being 100-per-cent true. This can happen if a manager hears a report from a peer that an employee made a mistake, accepts the report without checking the facts, proceeds to correct the employee, and later finds out that the other manager got the employees' names mixed up.

Confirmation bias: Looking for information that confirms a perception that an employee is late for work due to laziness, but later finding out that the reason for their tardiness was because the employee's father has died.

Before correcting an employee, it's best to get the facts in order to reduce bias and thinking errors, which when left unchecked can strain the employee-manager relationship.

How to correct a mistake

Acknowledge that mistakes happen and are seldom convenient

One of Edward Deming's 14 key principles for managers was to drive out fear. It's not the mistake as much as the intention. Most people don't want to fail or make mistakes on purpose. Employees learn and grow when they feel safe to report their mistakes to their manager. Encourage employees to feel free to report their mistakes to you so you can help correct and prevent them.

Look for the 'why' and options before correcting

Before making judgment or correcting a mistake, seek to understand the root cause. Find out whether it's due to a gap in knowledge, skill or attitude. Was it within or outside the employee's control? What type of mistake was it: operational, process, policy, legislation? Based on the facts and type of mistake, what are the options to fix it? Correcting mistakes can be challenging but it's the leader's job to correct mistakes, not avoid them. Most mistakes are coaching opportunities and are simple to correct. When a complex correction is warranted, it's often wise to discuss the issue with human resources, or even seek legal advice before engaging.

Simple corrections require a conversation, not a lecture

Most corrections provide an opportunity to teach. When correcting a behaviour, start with awareness. Don't assume the employee knows or understands the issue you want to correct. Ask the questions required to confirm whether the employee has the required knowledge, skills and attitude to avoid repeating the mistake. The goal is to not talk at the employee, but with them. The outcome of a simple correction is to ensure the employee is clear, has the knowledge, skills and attitude to proceed, has a go-forward plan, and there is follow-up. When done right, employees will often thank a leader for helping them.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series at this link:

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