But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead

Philippians 3:13

How do you handle it when an employee makes a costly mistake?

In many companies, people get punished for their mistakes. The punishment may not be formal. There may be no written documentation of it. People might get desirable responsibilities taken away. Their projects might get less funding than they deserve. They’re subtly treated as a risk.

Punishment says, “you’ll never learn.”

Punishment also says, “I’ll never be a strong and skilled enough leader to teach you.”

That’s why servant leaders never have to punish people. People who are committed to servant leadership have developed the strength and skill they need to coach people, instead of punish them.

Coaching looks forward and says “what can we learn so that this doesn’t happen again?”

When servant leaders learn of employees’ mistakes, they immediately step into coaching mode through doing these five things:

  1. Ask questions effectively

Questions are at the core of servant leadership. Yet, not all questions are created equal. Servant leaders know to always follow these guidelines when forming their questions:

  • Avoid questions that start with “why.”   The word “why” puts people on the defensive. It makes them feel as if their motives or judgment is being questioned. Instead, begin your questions with the words “how,” “what,” and “when.”
  • Ask questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Every big mistake has a vibrant backstory. It’s in this backstory that you’ll gain understanding of how the mistake happened and how to prevent its recurrence. Ask questions with the genuine intention of getting the full, detailed picture.
  • Ask questions designed to draw out a solution instead of fix blame. Guilt is an energy-sucking emotion. There is no need to tie up anyone’s energy in the past through saddling him or her with more guilt than they already feel. Your job, in fact, is to liberate employees from feeling guilt so that they can move forward again.
  1. Listen actively

Active listening is when you listen because you actually want to hear what’s being communicated. Here are ways to demonstrate your sincere interest in your employees’ responses to your questions:

  • Maintain steady eye contact. This is the single most powerful thing you can do to connect with someone and move a challenging conversation forward.
  • Give signs of affirmation.   Nod your head. Keep your body language open. Say things like, “okay, now I see.” These are little ways to send a big signal that you care not just about what’s being said, but about the person saying it.
  • Repeat back what you think you’ve heard. Reflect back the key points just communicated to you. Doing this demonstrates your investment in the conversation, and gives your employee the opportunity to make corrections and create clarity.
  1. Cultivate problem solving

Many leaders jump into problem solving mode for their employees. Servant leaders take the opposite approach, instead supporting people to solve their own problems. You can do this, too, through using these techniques:

  • Embrace silence.   Allowing silence is very challenging for most people. Cultivate your ability to sit in silence and let your employees’ think.
  • Gently redirect.   Your job isn’t to provide answers. If you are asked to do so, redirect back to what’s been learned, and how the employee can use that insight to generate their own solutions.
  • Draw parallels. If people struggle to develop a solution to their mistake, help them look for parallel situations across the organizations. What have they seen their colleagues do when a project hit the skids? What steps did they take? How can those steps serve as a springboard for ideas?
  1. Offer meaningful support

Supporting people to fix their own mistakes doesn’t mean washing your hands of the problem, or of the employee. That’s not leadership, that’s abdication. Here is how you can offer meaningful support that doesn’t cross the line into fixing people’s mistakes for them:

  • Establish a feedback loop.   When will you meet again to discuss the employee’s progress in fixing the mistake and getting back on track? Put the timing of this meeting in the employee’s hands. Put them in control of the goal.
  • Formalize partnerships.   Is there another team member whose expertise needs to be tapped in order to fix the mistake and prevent it from happening again? This is how teamwork is built, one mistake at a time! It’s also how innovation takes root. Give your blessing for this partnership to be formalized.
  1. Instill confidence

When employees make mistakes, servant leaders know that the quickest way to get them back on track is to shore up their confidence. Here are two tried-and-true ways you can do that:

  • Reference past success.   This one mistake does not represent the sum total of the employee’s career. It’s simply a brief detour on an otherwise upward trajectory. Hold up the projects, decisions, and ideas that have established the employee as positive asset to your organization. Give them that gift or perspective.
  • Express gratitude.   Say “thank you!” Thank them for caring enough to fix their misstep. Thank them for taking the risk that led to the mistake. Thank them for digging in and learning. Thank them for being a part of the team. Your gratitude for them in spite of their mistake will yield immeasurable returns for you, for your team, and for your company.

Which of these five coaching tools come most easily to you? Which do you find more challenging?

I’d love to hear where you need deeper support in coaching your employees’ through their mistakes. You can leave a comment in this post, or email me directly: Mark@TriuneLeadershipServices.com.

I look forward to hearing from you!


But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. 1 John 4:18