Management in the Moment – what to do when one of your team screws up

People are human. From time to time we all make mistakes. I make mistakes (frequently). You make mistakes (sometimes). And from time to time members of your team make mistakes. What’s the best thing to do when someone in your team drops the ball?

First, let’s take a look at what typically happens in a small business. Most businesses in the 1 to 50 employee bracket are set up by someone who is pretty good at the technical side of the business. Whether it’s hairdressing or architecture, product design or IT, the reason they set up the business in the first place was that they were good at what they do and their customers encouraged them to go it alone.

In such cases, the business owner/manager generally knows how to do the job better than the people working for him. So when something goes wrong what does he do? He rolls up his sleeves, jumps in and fixes the problem himself. And, indeed, it’s probably the quickest way to fix things in a hurry. The problem is that it creates a culture of dependency. The business owner/manager has just sent a strong message to the team member that it’s okay to drop balls because there’s someone else there to catch them. And, of course, running around fixing problems creates a whole load of additional stress for the business owner and keeps him from thinking about more important strategic issues.¬†Which is what he needs to be doing if his business is ever going to achieve its potential.

Instead of jumping in and fixing the problem himself, the business owner could instruct the team member what to do there and then. Sounds reasonable on the face of it, but it’s unlikely to be any more effective. Why? Because in a crisis situation emotions will be running high, so the team member is unlikely to be receptive to taking on board new information.

So what can you do? The most effective course is to stay cool and say something along the lines of: “Okay, this problem has arisen. What are the first three things we can do to get this out to the customer on time?” Then calmly let them get on and do them. At the next team meeting, when the storm has blown over, you can then have an open discussion on how to avoid the same thing happening in future. Again, use good questions to encourage the team to take responsibility, for example: “Was that a good choice? What would have been a better choice? What can we learn from this?”

This is, of course, the exact opposite of my recommended technique for promoting more of the behaviour you want. If someone does an excellent job, tell them at the first opportunity.

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