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5 tips for coaching and developing employees through failure

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How do you coach and develop employees in the workplace to help turn their failures into successes?

It’s not like you can flip a switch and transform a worker from “poor performer” to “standout employee.” If you could, someone would already have packaged and sold it, and every CEO in the country would be buying it.

When mistakes happen – and they inevitably will – you can try your most inspirational pep talk, hoping you’ll leave your employees in grateful awe, happy they work for you and ready to reach for the stars.

But let’s face it – that probably won’t work, either.

There are, however, ways to motivate and inspire your employees when they mess up – without killing their confidence or stealing their motivation. It’s not a quick fix, but it is a skill all managers should develop, and it starts with an inward look at your own preconceptions around failure and success.

The five tips below offer suggestions, as well as questions you should ask yourself, to help both your business’s leaders and employees learn from failure. Your answers can help shape how you coach employees through mistakes.

  1. Learn why your employees fail

Do your poor-performing employees have all the information and tools needed to perform their job as expected? Are your employees a good fit for the jobs they’re performing? Are your employees afraid to succeed?

Take time to figure out why your employee is failing, and then determine the best approach to coaching them.

Employees need to understand what their job duties entail and what your expectations of them are. Consider pairing new employees with peer mentors to help them become comfortable with their job and your company. If they don’t possess all of the skills required to do the job effectively, provide them with the training they need to become successful.

Yes, that’s right. Do whatever it takes to set them up for success.

Talk to your employees. Listen to the feedback they provide. Are they happy? Are they doing the job they want to do? You may not be able to change their job duties, but you can look for opportunities for them to try doing things differently or take on more (and new) responsibilities. Encourage them to grow in their current job so they’re ready when opportunities to advance arise. 

Success can be more daunting than failure to some people. They think they don’t deserve to be successful, that it will lead to risks or disappointments, or that peers will no longer like them and be jealous of their success. They may sabotage their own success.

If you have an employee who is afraid of succeeding in their role, help them to face that fear and remove any barriers holding them back – like procrastination, lack of follow-through or simply not doing the job at all. Help them visualize how success will look and the positive outcome they can expect.

  1. Analyze mistakes, but don’t get bogged down in analysis

Is a single employee, or the entire team, making the same mistake – and how frequently? Is the mistake because of inattention or lack of training? Are your employees facing situations new to your company?

If the team, not just an individual, makes the same mistakes, think about how often the mistake is made? Pay attention to any patterns you see. For example, is the mistake happening early in the process each time?

It may be that your employees don’t have clear direction on what or how to accomplish a task, or maybe they don’t understand the objective and how it affects the company.

A new employee, for example, may not understand how an incomplete form affects the process down the line. For example, if sections two and four of a form are incomplete, then finance and payroll are unable to properly track hours worked, which will impact both the employee’s paycheck and his or her PTO accumulation. This is why the employee needs a solid understanding of why completing all sections of a form are so important.

Explain the process and why incomplete data creates problems for other employees. Encourage them to ask questions when they lack the necessary information to perform their jobs to expectations, and offer them help if they need it.

Keep your focus and your coaching on getting the job done, not over-analyzing the situation .

Remain positive and offer your employee encouragement, such as, “This is complicated, and it takes everyone a few weeks to get it down, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Before long, you’ll breeze through this like you’ve always been doing it.”

  1. Consider making changes if failures happen frequently

Is the process too complex for even the most capable employee? Is the process flawed, outdated or incomplete? Do any of your employees need additional training?

Don’t assume you understand what the problem is and that you have the answer. Curb your desire to be critical or controlling – you’ve been new to jobs yourself and should understand the frustration of failing.

Most people don’t want to fail, but they may be unsure of how to succeed. Think back to how your manager or a peer helped you resolve similar situations. Who helped you learn the ropes, and how did positive coaching motivate you to do a better job?

Ask employees why tasks or projects are falling victim to failure, and consult the team to find out if they have suggestions for improvement. They’ll take more ownership for both failure and success if they know you’re receptive to their feedback and solutions.

How you approach mistakes sets the tone for your team. Everyone makes mistakes, and you want employees to feel safe when the inevitable happens. Nobody does their best work when they fear their head will be on the chopping block if they’re less than perfect.

Be clear that everyone has the opportunity to improve.

  1. Examine your expectations and adjust any need for perfection

Do you feel pressure to push for 100-percent perfection from your team? Do you consider it failure if things go less than perfectly? What are the consequences to the business if your employees fall short of perfection?

If you’re a perfectionist, take heed. Most people learn by experience, and no amount of coaching is going to change that – so you need to let experiential learners make minor mistakes.

Obviously, there are instances where nothing short of perfection is acceptable. A surgeon operating on the wrong knee or a nurse dispensing the incorrect dosage of medicine can have grave consequences.

But if you’re in an office setting, no one’s life is in jeopardy, and it’s unlikely that the world will stop spinning if an email doesn’t go out or isn’t answered by the end of the day.

Allowing your employees the leeway to fail in minor ways and not be censored for it conveys that you trust them, knowing they’ll get things right most of the time in spite of an occasional slip-up. In turn, you’ll earn trust from your employees as well.

This isn’t a laissez faire attitude or not caring about the quality of the work, but an acknowledgement that things are never going to be 100-percent perfect, no matter what.

  1. Celebrate, encourage and learn from failure

Do you openly acknowledge confidence in your team to get things right? Do you give “attaboys” when employees take risks, regardless of the outcome? Do you remain positive when mistakes happen?

Mistakes can be good things and often lead to innovation, business growth and new knowledge for your company. Let your team know you appreciate their innovative approaches. Discuss what everyone has learned from a mistake and how it will help improve performance.

Most of the time, employees try to do their best. Show appreciation for well-intentioned action, and be positive about mistakes. Focus on strengths, not weaknesses.

Above all, make sure your team learns how to take responsibility for their mistakes, their successes and the mundane tasks of everyday work life.

To read more about motivating your employees and helping them see the positive side of failure, download the free e-book, How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.