Mistakes Happen – 5 Steps To Lift People Up When They Make One

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead

Philippians 3:13

How do you handle it when an employee makes a costly mistake?

In many companies, people get punished for their mistakes. The punishment may not be formal. There may be no written documentation of it. People might get desirable responsibilities taken away. Their projects might get less funding than they deserve. They’re subtly treated as a risk.

Punishment says, “you’ll never learn.” Punishment also says, “I’ll never be a strong and skilled enough leader to teach you.”

That’s why servant leaders never have to punish people. People who are committed to servant leadership have developed the strength and skill they need to coach people, instead of punish them. Coaching looks forward and says “what can we learn so that this doesn’t happen again?”

When servant leaders learn of employees’ mistakes, they immediately step into coaching mode through doing these five things:

  1. Ask questions effectively

Questions are at the core of servant leadership. Yet, not all questions are created equal. Servant leaders know to always follow these guidelines when forming their questions:

  • Avoid questions that start with “why.”   The word “why” puts people on the defensive. It makes them feel as if their motives or judgment is being questioned. Instead, begin your questions with the words “how,” “what,” and “when.”
  • Ask questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Every big mistake has a vibrant backstory. It’s in this backstory that you’ll gain understanding of how the mistake happened and how to prevent its recurrence. Ask questions with the genuine intention of getting the full, detailed picture.
  • Ask questions designed to draw out a solution instead of fix blame. Guilt is an energy-sucking emotion. There is no need to tie up anyone’s energy in the past through saddling him or her with more guilt than they already feel. Your job, in fact, is to liberate employees from feeling guilt so that they can move forward again.
  1. Listen actively

Active listening is when you listen because you actually want to hear what’s being communicated. Here are ways to demonstrate your sincere interest in your employees’ responses to your questions:

  • Maintain steady eye contact. This is the single most powerful thing you can do to connect with someone and move a challenging conversation forward.
  • Give signs of affirmation.   Nod your head. Keep your body language open. Say things like, “okay, now I see.” These are little ways to send a big signal that you care not just about what’s being said, but about the person saying it.
  • Repeat back what you think you’ve heard. Reflect back the key points just communicated to you. Doing this demonstrates your investment in the conversation, and gives your employee the opportunity to make corrections and create clarity.
  1. Cultivate problem solving

Many leaders jump into problem solving mode for their employees. Servant leaders take the opposite approach, instead supporting people to solve their own problems. You can do this, too, through using these techniques:

  • Embrace silence.   Allowing silence is very challenging for most people. Cultivate your ability to sit in silence and let your employees’ think.
  • Gently redirect.   Your job isn’t to provide answers. If you are asked to do so, redirect back to what’s been learned, and how the employee can use that insight to generate their own solutions.
  • Draw parallels. If people struggle to develop a solution to their mistake, help them look for parallel situations across the organizations. What have they seen their colleagues do when a project hit the skids? What steps did they take? How can those steps serve as a springboard for ideas?
  1. Offer meaningful support

Supporting people to fix their own mistakes doesn’t mean washing your hands of the problem, or of the employee. That’s not leadership, that’s abdication. Here is how you can offer meaningful support that doesn’t cross the line into fixing people’s mistakes for them:

  • Establish a feedback loop.   When will you meet again to discuss the employee’s progress in fixing the mistake and getting back on track? Put the timing of this meeting in the employee’s hands. Put them in control of the goal.
  • Formalize partnerships.   Is there another team member whose expertise needs to be tapped in order to fix the mistake and prevent it from happening again? This is how teamwork is built, one mistake at a time! It’s also how innovation takes root. Give your blessing for this partnership to be formalized.
  1. Instill confidence

When employees make mistakes, servant leaders know that the quickest way to get them back on track is to shore up their confidence. Here are two tried-and-true ways you can do that:

  • Reference past success.   This one mistake does not represent the sum total of the employee’s career. It’s simply a brief detour on an otherwise upward trajectory. Hold up the projects, decisions, and ideas that have established the employee as positive asset to your organization. Give them that gift or perspective.
  • Express gratitude.   Say “thank you!” Thank them for caring enough to fix their misstep. Thank them for taking the risk that led to the mistake. Thank them for digging in and learning. Thank them for being a part of the team. Your gratitude for them in spite of their mistake will yield immeasurable returns for you, for your team, and for your company.

Which of these five coaching tools come most easily to you? Which do you find more challenging?

I’d love to hear where you need deeper support in coaching your employees’ through their mistakes. You can leave a comment in this post, or email me directly: [email protected].

I look forward to hearing from you!



Mark W. Deterding
Mark W. Deterding
MARK Deterding is an author, speaker, consultant, executive coach and the founder of Triune Leadership Services, LLC. His purpose is to work with leaders to help them develop core servant leadership capabilities that allow them to lead at a higher level and enable them to achieve their God-given potential. He has written two books, A Model of Servant Leadership, and Leading Jesus’ Way. With over three decades of experience directing companies and developing leaders, Mark created A Model of Servant Leadership parallel to the principles that Jesus himself illustrated. Working with organizations, leadership teams, and executives one-on-one, he helps bring focus, clarity, and action to make things work. He also conducts training programs to teach faith-based servant leadership principles. His greatest passion is seeing the impact servant leadership has on people’s lives and beyond. Prior to Triune Leadership Services he worked for 35 years in the printing industry holding senior leadership positions at Taylor Corporation, RR Donnelly, and Banta Corporation. He is an accomplished executive with a proven track record for developing purpose-driven; values based teams that drive culture improvement, enhanced employee passion, and improved business results. He is featured in Ken Blanchard’s book “Leading at a Higher Level”, and has been a featured speaker for the Ken Blanchard Companies Executive Forum in both 2007 and 2011. Mark lives in Alexandria, Minnesota with his wife Kim. They have two sons, two daughter-in-laws, and three grandchildren, so far. To find out more about Mark and his work, visit Triune Leadership Services via the Link adjacent his Photo above.

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  1. Phew, where to start, Mark? All five resonate with me, with #3 and #5 standing out perhaps a little more than the others.

    To #3, I’d add stay in the present. To keep reminding someone of the error of his/her ways does very little to motivate change. They know they screwed up. We know they screwed up. But to belabor the point avails us of nothing positive.

    We cannot go back. We cannot undo the original error. We can learn from it, figuring out what, why, when it all went wrong, but that’s a future idea. To focus on the past causes harm and creates barriers to growth.

    To #5 I say “Bravo!” It’s necessary that we or the others are left with hope for the future, that we CAN learn from the past, that we CAN figure out how to do things differently and correctly, that we CAN have a successful future.

    A must-read, Mark. Thank you!

    • Thanks for your extremely additive comments and thoughts Susan! You are such a blessing to all those you interact with. Wishing you blessings on all the great work you are doing!

    • My goodness, Mark — how very nice of you!

      Your article resonates strongly with me because I’ve written several articles on the topic, often focusing on the specific language that can make or break a conversation or relationship. I also include such stuff in my communication workshop, just to help others learn and to learn their thoughts that can add to my knowledge base.

      Thanks for helping me learn today as well!