5 Relationship Skills That Help Address Employee Mistakes

Even in the best-run organizations, things go wrong and employees mishandle their assigned tasks.

Sometimes those mistakes are significant and costly, infuriating managers who come down hard and with perhaps a bit of righteous fury on the hapless offender.

But such managerial venting just makes matter worse in the long run, says Don Rheem, one of the nation’s preeminent authorities on leadership science and author of Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High-Performance Cultures.

“The traditional role of managers is to hold people accountable to timelines, budgets, productivity and other factors,” he says. “But often that’s done with a fear-based approach where employees perform their duties under threat of some kind of punishment.”

That’s counterproductive because humans don’t perform to their optimum level when the brain becomes preoccupied with fear and uncertainty, says Rheem, whose firm uses science-backed research to consult with leaders at all levels in organizations.

In fact, it’s just the opposite. People do a better job of carrying out their duties under positive circumstances, and research shows that individual employees, the team and the organization all are more likely to thrive when leaders are positive.

That doesn’t mean managers should ignore problems. Things do go wrong and employees need to be held accountable, but it comes down to how a manager handles those situations. The key is to show managers how to hold people accountable without being negative. Rheem says the following three-step approach is effective when an employee botches an assignment:

Show appreciation. Start the conversation with appreciation for something positive about the employee that relates to performance, behavior or attitude. “This appreciation needs to be unqualified,” Rheem says. “You can’t insert a ‘but’ or a ‘however’ because that quickly negates what you’re trying to do.” The appreciation step is essential, he says, because otherwise the employee will see the entire process as unfair or unbalanced. “You can’t focus strictly on failure,” Rheem says. Employees wonder why their manager only connects with them regarding their mistakes.

Be real. Turn the discussion to what isn’t going well to hold the employee accountable for their actions. The goal is to let the person know in no uncertain terms that the project was not successful, but to do this without shaming, blaming or demoralizing them. Rheem suggests starting this part of the conversation with a statement such as: “We didn’t get where we wanted to with this project.” That acknowledges a shared responsibility, without the punitive sting.

Ask thoughtful questions. Inquire about ways their performance could have delivered a better outcome. Questions such as: “If we did this project again, what could we do differently to change the outcome?” “How could I have supported you and your team better?” Let them know you don’t want answers right way. Say that you’ll get with them the following day to hear their thoughts. “That can change the trajectory of what the employee will do after the meeting,” Rheem says. “Instead of going home and updating their resume and complaining to their spouse about the unfair treatment, they are more likely to spend their time focused on what they could have done differently since they have to answer that question the next day.”

“This process leads to personal and professional growth for the employee,” Rheem says, “and can turn a point of failure into an opportunity for future success.”

About Don Rheem

Don Rheem, author of Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High-Performance Cultures, is CEO of E3 Solutions (, a provider of employee workplace metrics and manager training that allow organizations to build engaged, high-performance cultures. Rheem, one of the nation’s principle authorities on leadership science, uses empirically validated research to consult with leaders at all levels within an organization. He is a former science advisor to Congress and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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