One of your people just messed up big time. What should you do?
  • leadership
  • Blog post

One of your people just messed up big time. What should you do?

Your employee just botched an important assignment. Spectacularly. Publicly. Humiliatingly.

Memos have been sent. Voices raised. Eye contact avoided.

Assuming it’s not a firing offense, how do you, as a manager and coach, respond?

Some people bounce back from mistakes – even big mistakes – with grit and resolve. But others feel crushed, lose confidence and stop doing the things that made them successful. There is a risk that their long-term performance will suffer.They may even quit their job or change careers – with potentially devastating consequences for both the employee and your organization.

Research suggests that how you communicate with your people in the wake of a fiasco can have a huge influence on their future performance. So what’s the best way to build resilience in your people when they’ve failed? How do you help them climb back on the horse?

It’s tempting to try bucking up their morale. You might point to their past successes. Or say something like, “You’re talented and you work hard. You’ve succeeded in the past, and I have no doubt you will in the future.”

Sounds good, right? But according to one research study, that kind of pep talk – which, by the way, makes no mention whatsoever of the failure itself – has zero impact on future performance.

Set up to fail

The study, from the University of California, Berkeley, set people up to fail. Participants were given a difficult test – one that most people were sure to fail. The people taking the test didn’t know that, of course. They just knew that they’d done badly.

The researchers were looking at how people responded to this sort of failure. Specifically, if they were told that another test was coming up, would they just throw up their hands and give up? Or would they dig in and study even harder? And how would they perform on the follow-up test?

With one group – the control group – people were simply given their test scores after the initial test.

You’re not such a bad person

With another group,  the researchers also gave feedback aimed at bolstering the test-takers’ self-image. It was basically a pep talk, with comments like these: “You must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley.” These feel-good comments – what the lead researcher called “outside validation” – had virtually no effect on the participants’ motivation, compared with the control group.

Go ahead and forgive yourself

With a third group, researchers acknowledged the failure but encouraged participants to be kind to themselves. They used such phrases as these: “If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone,” and  “Try not to be too hard on yourself,” and  “It’s common for people to have difficulty with tests like these.”

This approach — which the researchers call “self-forgiveness” — had a big impact on performance and resilience. People in this group were  more likely to study for the next exam. On average, they spent 33% more time hitting the books. And they performed better on the follow-up exam.

So this strategy has a measurable positive impact on motivation and performance. That’s a rare thing in coaching.

Lead researcher Juliana Breines wrote: “People who were taught to be kind to themselves felt more motivated to see their mistakes as a chance for growth. Outside validation didn’t seem to matter as much.” In other words, the  failure became a learning opportunity, not a threat or judgment.

But what about accountability?

Forgive yourself? Really?

As a manager, isn’t it irresponsible to offer that kind of out? Isn’t it the same as telling people they’re not accountable for their poor results?

Well, no. Self-forgiveness isn’t the same as lack of accountability. The self-forgiveness technique, paradoxically, allows people to  accept that they made a mistake — and yet results in higher motivation and performance. If there are consequences to the mistake, the employee has to face up to them. And if you look closely at the study, you’ll see that the researchers didn’t let anyone of the self-forgiveness group off the hook. They didn’t make excuses. They acknowledged the failures. In fact, self-forgiveness requires people to accept that they failed: “You screwed up. Don’t beat yourself up.”

A pep talk, by contrast, can gloss over failures. It can imply that the mistake didn’t matter much, or was something that “just happened.”  And by minimizing failures, you make them harder to examine, so they’re more likely to happen again.

Action steps

Here’s a three-step model you can use to help your employees to practice self-forgiveness, quickly recover from mistakes and get back on track:

  1. Acceptance. People need to face up to the fact that they made a mistake. Help employees own their failures, and not try to blame them on outside factors or downplay the error.
  2. Forgiveness. Encourage employees to forgive themselves, using language similar to that used in the study. Say things like, “This is a tough job. You’re not the only one who’s had trouble.” Or simply, “Try not to beat yourself up too much over this.”
  3. Planning. Finally, help employees plan the way forward — to figure out what they can do to fix the damage if possible, and how to avoid making a similar mistake next time.

Citation: “Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation,” (2012). Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9): 1133-1143.)

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