in Great Quotes

To err is human – Treating people when they make mistakes

People are not human robots. They will make mistakes. A manager’s true measure is the way he treats his people when they make mistakes.

I was thrashed by my boss way back in 2001 for a minor mistake I did working on a project based on a very new technology. I literally had tears in my eyes after I was shouted upon, knowing that I had worked on the module for 18 hours at a stretch without taking a single break, learning the technology and getting job done. My mistake was minor, but the one my boss committed was major. He lost my respect.  Shouting was his way of reinforcing the belief that he was in charge. I moved on!

Another interesting case happened with one of my friends Alan who was a tech lead with a multi-national company. He had accidentally replaced the production database with an incorrect version leading to overall application failure. Alan knew that he would get a beating and probably may lose his job. While he was still preparing himself mentally for the eventuality, his manager approached him. He entered with a smile on his face and said “I know this is serious, but I am also sure you would do whatever it takes to correct this. Let us put our best and get this back on track”. Alan and his team worked overnight to correct it next morning and client really appreciated this in form of an encouraging email. A few days after this incident, the manager called Alan in the canteen to share a cup of coffee. It was then that the manager inquired about the root cause of such a mistake. The manager informed Alan that such mistakes should not have happened and that he needs to be careful in future. 

A couple of years back, as a QA Manager, I was reviewing a troubled project. When I interrogated the project manager, he started pointing specific mistakes of each team member. He never acknowledged that he was responsible for this and that it was a team mistake and not individual one. He exposed his team members instead of protecting them.

These diverse experiences have shaped my management style. Here’s what I learnt from these experiences.

  1. When someone make a mistake, keep your cool and focus on the immediate correction. Shouting/thrashing just puts people off and solution/correction takes longer. It adds to a lot of stress – for a manager as well as for the team members. Being a manager does not give you a right to be rude to your team.
  2. Sit next to the team member if you think that will help them. Be around when they need you.
  3. Treat people well when they least expect it – and see the wonders it does to bring things back on track. This is a great time also to let your people know that you trust them. Reinforce their confidence.
  4. Protect them and not expose them.
  5. Schedule a separate interaction after the mistake is resolved – to do causal analysis and plan preventive measures.  This should be done with a focus on problem and not an individual. Idea is not to blame anyone or point fingers.
  6. Try and convert each mistake into a learning opportunity – making mistakes is productive as long as team doesn’t repeat the same mistakes again.

“To err is human, and to forgive, divine”. Do all managers/leaders acknowledge this?

I wonder.

13 Comments

  1. I absolutely agree to the fact stated above – it is something that applies routine work life, but i have hardly seen any boss practice it. My boss always says P=S (Problem = Solution) – Instead of getting into the root cause of the problem at the very moment, one should think of the best and quickest solution and thenafter get into the roots of why the problem ocurred and how such problems can be prevented in future. Putting confidence and trust in your team during such situations wil create wonders!!!

  2. Shivangi, Thanks for commenting. I endorse P=S formula since it has worked for me in the past. Managers need to note that they are managing breathing, living and emotional human beings and not robots and a little bit of empathy goes a long way in establishing great trust within the team. This is even more relevant when a team member has committed a mistake.

    Another advantage of this approach is that whey they make mistakes, they will not try to hide them but openly discuss it and come to solutions.

    Keep commenting.

  3. Hi Tanmay,

    First of all thanks again for a great post created out of the day to day experiences. You have this art to convert day to day life incidents to high quality management lessons wrapped up with all your readings, and why not, every next event in life is about management.

    This kind of lessons are learnt hard ways, but authors like would help many managers in carving their management style too.

  4. Thanks Shripal – the primary intent of this blog was to ensure that I don’t loose any lessons I learn from day to day management – and am glad that you enjoyed reading the post.

    Keep reading/commenting.

  5. Hi Tanmay,

    It is regretful that this problem of being trashed by a boss is so much prevalent. The root of the problem, I believe, is in people misunderstanding the meaning of hierarchy in an organization. It is meant to ease communication more than bringing authority/control. It is fact beyond doubt that people grow responsible when they are made to believe so rather than controlling/bossing. Ideally, this realization should come from within. But in organization like ours peer review is an integral part of the work culture. Occasionally we also have coffee chat with the director of the group to express our concerns. The culture eliminates the very thought of superiority over others at the same time preserves the effectiveness of an hierarchy. No one regrets the possibility of being targeted by a peer but makes efforts towards respecting every member.

    Nicely written post on a subject that is probably the most important to learn for a people manager.

    Thanks!
    Vamsi

  6. I don’t understand why your boss did that to you, anyway its good that you have move on. Thanks for sharing the 6 tips that you have learned from your experience. I hoe all managers realize this.

  7. Tanmay, this is really a wonderful way of looking at the mistakes that people cause. You have elaborated the experiences and solutions in a very well formed manner.

    One more thing, that we always tend to see is that as bosses, it is really not easy to control the tempers. You will agree from your experiences that it is better said than done when you are working under pressures, deadlines, long working hours and stressed days! That is why generally bosses tend to get angry. As a solution to this one, there are probably many psychological ways where the temper can be controlled. One such way, that I have practiced in all my past organization is – “find the fault in the process and not the person”. This approach, if you execute, will provide you a very different kind of insight into the way people behave in different scenarios. Think of it – a person commits a mistake not really for the sake of spoiling the broth. There is something either missing in the instructions or the overall process of execution that makes the person take that route.

    I hope that this approach can benefit many people in their day-to-day chores – at office or at home!!!

    Thanx!
    Nitin

  8. @Vamsi – I can’t agree more when you say that the meaning of hierarchy is misunderstood. Just being on the top does not give you a license to shout at people. My personal experience has been that such bosses go out of business very fast. Sustainable leadership is never built on such weak foundations. Integrity, patience and mentoring are very important traits of being a successful leader. Thanks for commenting!

    @Brain Teasers – My boss did that to me because he was a manager who did not know anything about the technology I worked on. In my opinion, when you have a boss who doesn’t understand the nitty-gritties of your work, this is more likely to happen.

    @Nitin – you are right on target when you say that focus on process and not on person. Sure, there are days when temper is difficult to control but with a conscious exercising, temper control is very much achievable. You also rightly point out to the fact that people make mistakes because of lack of instructions or process to execute a piece of work. In that case, it is even more imperative that managers focus on better communication and take corrective measures to ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated.

    Thanks all for taking this conversation to the next level by adding your valuable insights.

  9. Hi Tanmay,
    I think i have to send this article to my bosses as they require this medicine as soon as possible. The points you have highlighted with examples could create best sword for the upcoming team leaders or managers. As Philip Kotler quotes ” Management is getting things done through others “, Its really difiicult job to make things from others than doing it yourself. But the examples given by you could make person understand how to show leadership among the hierarchy.

    I thank you for sharing your ideas with your audience. I would look forward for more articles like this at front.
    Warm regards

  10. Shereen, Thanks for your comment.

    Management is certainly about getting things done through others – but managers need to understand that people will make mistakes. Without the right support structure from management, people will not be able to undertake complex assignments. And When they do, they will make mistakes. One has to treat them well and focus on correction – else how would they learn from mistakes?

    Threatening when they make mistakes is easy – what is difficult is to stand by them and help them overcome a mistake.

  11. Tanmy – that is a brilliant ‘list of six’ that all managers should have displayed on their desk very prominently.

    Managers make mistakes too and those who forget that simple fact are the one’s we need to worry about. I think this whole thing is about power and the need is some people to demonstrate their power.

    The best managers I’ve ever worked for have humility as their greatest asset.

    Thanks for your enlightening post.

  12. It’s absolutely right, As a HR Manager I practically see in the meeting we all use to blame some one for some thing and to cover up our self, but I too get realised what the power of sharing knowledge, I put those things now, I hope I will get the good results in future.

    Thanks a lot for sharing you good experience with valid solutions

  13. @D Bhanu Prakash,

    Thanks for commenting.

    As I mentioned in the post, blaming someone is easiest thing to do. Whats difficult is to take responsibility of your team’s mistake and look for improvements.

    Have a great day!

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