One of my colleagues at Zapier has been diving deep on the ins and outs of coaching. A few weeks back, she put out a prompt to our team. How do you respond when a teammate makes a mistake?
My brain immediately started thinking about all of the more visible mistakes I’ve made in the past.
There was the time that I took down the WordPress.com post editor after failing to test my pull request on a fresh cache. A large chunk of users couldn’t create new posts or pages for what felt like hours (really ~15 minutes).
Then, there was another time when I misunderstood an IP setting at WPVIP. I essentially restricted access to a very high-profile site to a certain range of IPs (blocking it from everyone else around the world).
Oh, and I also remembered another time where I ran an Elasticsearch query with multiple wildcards (I had reasons!), which ended up causing quite a few issues for the rest of our team. The best part: I ran the query multiple times because I was stumped why it was timing out and not returning results. Whoops!
The point being we all make mistakes. Your response sets an important tone across the team. So, how should you respond?
Decrease the Stakes
In each of the situations mentioned above, a few thoughts ran through my had including:
- I’m fired. Better polish up that resume.
- I’m so dumb. How could I make such a silly mistake?
- Welp, there goes any kind of trust I’ve built up across the org.
Obviously, none of these came to fruition. Yes, there were some difficult conversations and lessons to be learned, but my worst fears never actually materialized.
The first step is to help limit the damage and prevent the narrative from spinning out of control. Otherwise, “I made an error” can turn into “I ruined the whole company.”
I’ve found a few approaches helpful here including:
- Share your own mistakes. That way, they know they’re not alone. And, best of all, someone made a mistake and lived to tell the tale.
- Contextualize the mistake. I heard a phrase awhile back that I use often. “We’re not launching rockets.” The point is that, for most of us, the work we do is important, but it’s probably not life and death. People will recover from their website being down for 5 minutes. Help separate fact from the story we all make up in our heads.
The next piece is ensuring understanding. How do we prevent this same mistake from happening again in the future? What did we learn?
Often times, the person that made the mistake knows the answer! In my case, I’ll never fail to test another PR against a fresh browser cache. I learned that lesson the hard way.
The point here is don’t rob the person of a learning experience by offering suggestions right away. We’ve talked about this before as taming the advice monster. Start with broader questions like, “Walk me through what happened here.” Let the teammate come to their own conclusions first before offering suggestions.
When I’ve made a mistake in the past, I wanted to bury my head in sand and hide from everyone. If I could cover everything up, no one would know I made a mistake! This has multiple negative consequences.
First, it prevents insights from being shared across the team. The best lessons are often learned through mistakes, and those should be shared widely to prevent anyone else from bumping into the same trap.
Second, if our natural instinct is to feel shame and expect the worst (fired, reprimanded, etc), we need visible counterexamples that show the opposite. If no one shares mistakes openly, this natural instinct continues to persist. Sharing mistakes widely and in a positive light (“I messed up. Here’s how, and here’s what I learned.”) helps to break this down and create a positive perception (especially for newer teammates).
Set Them Up for Success Moving Forward
Finally, there are steps you can take moving forward to help bolster your teammate’s confidence.
Often times, we penalize ourselves internally for mistakes far more than we praise ourselves for doing great work. Catch your teammate doing something awesome and make sure they know about it.
Encourage them to set up a brag file – essentially a collection of praise they can reference to counterbalance the embarrassment from mistakes.
Don’t stop challenging them. In each of the scenarios I discussed in the beginning, I made a mistake when I stepped outside of my comfort zone and attempted something unfamiliar. My natural inclination then was to shrink back into my turtle shell and stick to what I knew. Don’t let mistakes cause you to stop leaning on your teammate for challenging tasks. This only reinforces the mindset of “No one will trust me again.”
If this topic excites you, I’d encourage you to read Black Box Thinking, which is all about how organizations handle and learn from failure.