Leading people: The rules of managing mistakes

There will always be errors; how you deal with them is what really matters.

Let's face it; the art of making mistakes is one that some people dedicate themselves to. I have worked with people who clearly want to perfect their art, and in order to do so they pursue new and more inventive methods.

I remember one guy in our accounts team who was famous for never making the same mistake twice, but always managed to find brand new ways of cocking things up that had clearly taken a great deal of time and effort.

Even for those who aren't founder members of the National Guild of Copper-Bottomed Mistakery, making mistakes is a fundamental feature of the human condition. But it's interesting how many managers disconnect what they purport to believe about managing mistakes from what they actually do.

You will often hear people espousing the idea that mistakes are important and should be celebrated (actually it's usually management consultants who say that, to be honest) and then going absolutely insane with fury when a member of their team messes up.

But it is important that managers handle mistakes well. If you don't, mistakes will be hidden from you in future, and then what could have been only a correctable cock-up will turn into a monumental disaster.

When faced with a mistake, there are some simple do's and don'ts: don't lose your temper; don't seek to find the culprit - 'whodunnit' is not as important as what happened; don't over-dramatise it - it's only a mistake, not the collapse of the banking industry, so keep it in perspective. Do focus on what happened - in other words, the facts of the case; do concentrate on what can be done to fix it if possible; do make sure you look at what can be done to avoid it in future; and do forgive people - most are not doing it deliberately.

Finally, don't be a hypocrite. Managers who own up to their own mistakes usually have more credibility with their teams than those who don't. If you made a mistake, trust me, your team will know it was you 'wot dunnit', so dissembling is disingenuous at the very least.

- Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert.

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