3 Actions to Enhance Employee Engagement When Mistakes Occur

April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Most, if not all, of us drive.  Imagine driving your car on a straightaway and not touching the wheel.  I sometimes do this to test the alignment of the front-end.  If the car stays in the lane for a long period of time it must be aligned, right?  Well, it depends. 

Most often we need to make small adjustments to the steering to keep the car in the lane even on a straightaway.   Making these little adjustments come naturally for experienced drivers.  These little adjustments correct little mistakes.  Without little adjustments we might be in trouble.  They are necessary to keep us safe in our lane and on the correct road in the right direction.

Senior leaders decide which road we should take.  This is derived from the vision, mission, and strategy they create for the organization.  If employees don’t completely understand either one of these, or key parts of these, employees can drive too slow, or go in the wrong direction, go on an incorrect road, or even drove off the road. 

Senior leaders also create the context of the organization.  The context sets the expectations of employees.  Do employees have the ability and willingness to make those little adjustments to the wheel or do they need to wait for managers to direct them?  A leader’s reaction to employees when they make these little adjustments sends a clear message.  Do they encourage or discourage these little adjustments? How do you behave when mistakes are made?  Do your actions encourage or discourage?  Here are three actions you can take to ensure you protect and even enhance employee engagement when mistakes are made.

Treat mistakes and an opportunity to learn with experimentation in a complex system

How a leader views or defines mistakes will determine his/her reaction and the employee response.    Leaders who enhance employee engagement look at mistakes as an opportunity to learn for all levels.  They see the mistake as flaw in the process or system within which the employee operates.  They don’t see the mistake as a flaw in the employee who was involved.  For these leaders the employee was not really the cause of the mistake.  

Instead, the employee was merely one of the many factors. Some of these factors are obvious and observable while others can be hidden and unseen.  For example, a driver who hits a nail and gets a flat tire will be late for an appointment.   The driver’s choices to be on a certain road and in a certain lane are only two of the many factors that contributed to this problem.  In other words, systems are complex.

Employees, unless they purposely make the mistake, or purposely sabotage, are only one factor in a series of complex factors.  Sabotage is a serious offense and is a totally different matter and must be treated differently from mistakes.

Leaders who hold employees accountable for results and for numeric goals can damage employee engagement because they are not acknowledging the complexity of factors in the system.  Blaming employees for mistakes will damage engagement.

Leaders who want to enhance employee engagement will allow the employee to “drive the car” and make the little adjustments necessary to get to the destination.  They clarify the vision, mission, and strategy to be sure the employees are all on the correct road.  They look for opportunities to remove barriers by “looking for potholes and detours” and they coach employees around these barriers when necessary.

Acknowledge and teach that there is variation in everything

There is always variation and there is variation in everything.  Life is largely about adapting to variation.  Keeping to our car metaphor, when we stop holding the steering we may stay in our lane anyway because the variation in the road surface might keep the car in the lane or a misalignment of the front-end might also contribute to the car staying in the lane on its own.  Perhaps the curve in the road contributed to keep the car straight.  The assumption that the car stays in the lane because the front-end must be aligned may not be completely accurate.  It depends on a lot of factors. 

Recognizing there is variation in everything is very useful.  It allows employees and leaders to work together as a team to manage the variation.  If we acknowledge variation we can measure it, publish the measurement and then ask, “How we can experiment with little adjustments to improve that measure?”

Recognize and understand the two types of mistakes

According to Dr. W. Edwards Deming there are two types of mistakes, common cause and special cause.  Leaders must understand the difference between common cause variation (inside the control limits) and special cause variation (outside the control limits) because each requires a different strategy for resolution.  Common cause variation is not caused by any one special event.  Instead, it is the “voice” of the system.  It is the way the system is currently operating. 

For example, if the daily commute to your office is, on average, 30 minutes one way, it might take 28 minutes on Tuesday and 32 minutes on Thursday. That difference of 4 minutes is probably common cause variation.  It is just the typical variation we can expect for that commute.  

If a leader wants to improve common cause variation he/she must study the process using quality improvement tools.  He/she must make decisions based on knowledge of the system.  This will probably require the use of process improvement tools.

A change in one process can cause an impact (unintended negative consequences) in another process.  Leaders, if they are not careful, can make small changes with one process (with the best of intentions) and can actually make things worse.  For example, an increase in the pressure on schools to meet the higher test scores in the “No Child Left Behind” program had administrators see a significant spike in cheating by teachers, students and parents.

Leaders must also understand when a special cause occurs so immediate action can be taken. With special causes there is an assignable cause to the event.  For example, the recent “one-two punch” (earthquake and tsunami) on Japan caused the nuclear disaster at the electric utility company.  The natural disaster (earthquake with the tsunami) is the assignable special cause for this nuclear accident.


Leaders must treat mistakes as opportunities to optimize learning.  Unless the mistake is purposeful any blame on the employee is unsophisticated and will cause a leader to miss an opportunity to identify real root causes.


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