5 Questions You Should Ask When Your Employee Fails

One of the most rewarding things about working on a team is comradery that comes with sharing in successes with your colleagues. From professional sports teams to small businesses, leading a team is by far one of the most rewarding experiences in life. The rewards that come from seeing one of your team members accomplish big things for the company and for their career go hand in hand with the wisdom of growing through delegating tasks to others rather than try to do it all yourself. Being a leader can truly one of the most amazing experiences in your life!


Until it isn’t. When you get a phone call from a client about how your software developer missed a critical deadline. When your human resources manager brought a slate of job candidates that completely missed the mark. When your marketing and sales team missed their goals. You’ve seen the quotes about how success comes through failure before, and you want to be understanding, but this screw up really hurt. Perhaps it cost your company a valuable client. Perhaps it made you look incompetent in front of your superior. Perhaps it even cost you personally financially. Responding in the face of a mistake that someone else made is a gut-wrenching feeling for leaders, particularly those that struggle with insecurity. It’s easy to point the finger at your team member to ensure that others know that it wasn’t your failure that caused this mistake. It’s also tempting to attempt to make them feel a measure of the pain that this failure is causing you. The moments when leaders are faced with failure that affects an entire organization are the moments that make or break their success.

When you’re on a team, it’s important to remember that just as no one succeeds by themselves, no one fails by themselves either. While their might be one person who caused the failure directly, there were likely extensive factors that led to this event. Before casting blame directly on this individual or department, before making them feel a measure of the pain that you’re experiencing as their leader, and especially before eliminating them from your team, pause to ask yourself these important questions. We think you’ll be well served by them. 

1.     How Did My Actions Contribute to This?

One of the most challenging parts of being a leader is showing vulnerability. On its surface, vulnerability can seem like demonstrable evidence of weakness. After all, you’re the leader and if your team sees you struggling what is your purpose? The pedestal you’ve placed yourself on can seem frequently seem daunting, particularly when admitting mistakes to superiors and subordinates. However, showing vulnerability and owning mistakes is a vital part of earning the trust and honesty of the entire team. Leadership expert Jon Gordon has written about the “Safe Seat” policy instituted by the Clemson University’s Head Football Coach Dabo Swinney. Regularly during weekly team meetings, Coach Swinney will call upon leaders to take a seat in a stool to talk about their life and mistakes they’d made on and off the field to forge connections with his teammates. According to Jon Gordon, Coach Swinney gives large credit for Clemson’s national championship win to the tight connections gained through the tight bond of these meetings. Openly admitting your role in the mistake can build trust among subordinates and shows them that they have your support and trust.

2.     How Did My Systems Contribute to This?

When mistakes happen, it’s always tempting to find a scapegoat. Often though, mistakes can naturally occur because of poorly created processes that made it either impossible or unnecessarily difficult for your team to succeed. Perhaps your timeline for billing clients was arbitrarily too short and it caused undue pressure and errors for your office manager. Perhaps your directions that you sent by email to your staff weren’t seen because they are inundated by emails from clients all day and they just missed them. Perhaps there is a bottleneck in approval processes that is wholly unnecessary and crowding up your workflow. Whatever it could be, systems failures require a big-picture view of the problem rather than simply focusing on who was “holding the bag” when the mistake was made. While your team member needs to recognize their error, often it is also valuable to include them in the solutions-finding process to help identify how systems can be improved to help avoid the mistake in the future.

3.     What are the contextual ramifications of the mistake?

Just like we all learned from our parents, mistakes have consequences. A leader must efficiently take stock of what consequences were caused by this particular mistake and what needs to be done to attempt to fix the mistake. While sometimes the mistake can be as simple as a sincere apology, other times deeper consequences can be present. Include all necessary stakeholders in a meeting to list the internal and external consequences of the mistake. It’s vital that the mistake is looked at with context. If your company’s profit margin has been suffering for years and a team member made a small error, it’s unfair to him or her to unleash your pent-up frustration and direct it at their mistake. It’s also unfair to spread the news of the mistake to unaffected parties through gossip or complaining. Handle the mistake and don’t let issues that don’t have context within the error cloud your judgement.

4.     How Can I Address This with Wisdom and Empathy?

Treating others the way we want to be treated may be the “Golden Rule,” but it’s far from the easiest to follow. Leaders are often under immense internal and external pressure to succeed, making mistakes a painful occurrence. Instead of unloading that pressure on the offending party, try your best to place yourself in the other person’s position. Use the leadership wisdom that you’ve gained through your career to decide how this employee might learn from their mistakes best, whether it’s you showing them the correct process or simply providing corrective advice. Keep a measured tone rather than raising your voice so that your communication is clear and that your employee doesn’t simply shut down or become defensive. Remember that you’ve made mistakes in the past and will make them in the future, so addressing the mistake with a restorative rather than a punitive spirit can lead to greater success for your team than taking the easy way out and casting all the blame on one person.

5.     How Do I Prevent This from Happening Again?

Congratulations! You’ve successfully addressed your involvement in the mistake, identified the systems failures that contributed to the error, contextualized the ramifications, and addressed the employee with restorative empathy. While your path has been successful so far, failing to look to the future makes the problem far more likely to happen again. Again, don’t jump to the low-hanging fruit of placing the full blame on a person. Even if the mistake was caused by a singular person and the mistake necessitates the individual leaving the company, consider how the mistake should change your training policies so that future team members understand how to avoid this error better. When the corrective action places responsibility on your shoulders, such as better communication of directions or a different type of oversight, make sure that you follow through, understanding that any time this mistake is made in the future that the consequences are probably going to be worse and that you will bear a greater share of the responsibility for them.