No Pain, No Gain: 7 Tips for Coaching Employees Through Failure

It’s a fact of business life. Mistakes happen. It’s also a fact that your role as team leader is to monitor when, how and why mistakes happen, and seek solutions.

Some managers are daunted by the responsibility of coaching an employee through the aftermath of a mistake. How do you do it without killing their confidence or stealing their motivation? Let’s take a look at the most common of employee failures – the minor mistake.

It’s an important skill to master – mistakes coaching – but one with a few simple guidelines.

1. Think about your own failures

Try to think through what caused you to take an incorrect action and how you and your leader resolved the situation. This is especially important advice for managers who tend to be overly critical or controlling.

Remember, you too were once new to this task or this job and someone helped you learn the ropes. How you approach mistakes with your team sets the tone for your entire group.

Everyone makes mistakes and you want your employees to feel safe when the inevitable happens.

2. Analyze the mistake

Was this a mistake due to inattention or improper or not enough training? Was it major or minor? Does every team member make the same mistake their first week? Was the employee facing a situation your company hasn’t seen before? Let your answers to these questions shape what you say to the employee.

For instance, an incomplete form may not seem like a big deal to a new employee who doesn’t understand the extra work generated further down the line by their incomplete data. Explain the problem, and take your newbie through the entire process by introducing her to everyone who uses the form after she fills it out. Let other employees talk about why they need complete information to do their jobs.

3. Celebrate the failure

Remember, most employees are trying to do their best, most of the time. Show appreciation for the well-intentioned action, even if it led to a failure. Talk about what the employee did right, then explain the problem. Always focus on strengths, not weaknesses.

During your discussion, go over any processes and procedures necessary to get a procedural task done right the next time. If the failure was more complex, say a sales meeting didn’t go well, try role-playing to help your employee find their footing.

4. Ignore, or work around, minor mistakes

Perfectionists take heed! Things don’t always have to be exactly, 100 percent perfect. Some people learn by experience and no amount of coaching or manual reading will change that, so be open to letting experiential learners make minor mistakes.

Of course, this advice does not apply when health and safety are at risk, for instance in a hospital setting. No one thinks it’s okay for a nurse to make a minor mistake in giving out medicine.

However, in an office setting, it is unlikely that someone will die if an email doesn’t get sent out by the end of the day. By giving employees room to fail in minor ways you convey that you trust them to get the job done right – eventually. Just don’t let this laissez faire attitude go too far or you will convey that you don’t care about quality.

5. If failures are too frequent, explore why and consider change

Is the process too complex to be done right, even by the most capable employee? Is the process inherently flawed, outdated or incomplete? Does your team or an individual need more training? It’s important to ask questions when frequent mistakes occur.

Don’t assume you understand the problem. Ask the employee, in the case of repeated individual mistakes, why he thinks he is failing to get the job done. If many people are failing to accomplish what’s needed, it’s time to consult your team about what is going wrong, why, and if they have suggestions for improvement.

6. Keep moving forward – don’t over-analyze

When faced with constant failures, some employees fall into analysis paralysis. Should you or your employee tend toward over-analysis, try to remember that it’s important to keep trying, especially if she is learning a new skill or testing a new process.

Keep the focus on getting the job done and offer a few words of encouragement, such as “This is a complicated process. Everybody here needed a few weeks to learn all the steps. Don’t worry. Once you get it right you’ll be able to do this in your sleep!”

7. Encourage more failures

It can be hard to accept, but sometimes mistakes are good. Mistakes, when handled properly, can lead to innovation, business growth and valuable new knowledge for the company.

Talk about the learning and improvements that resulted from a mistake. Give atta-boys (and girls) to those who take risks, whether the mistake resulted in success or failure. Such discussions let your team know you appreciate innovation.

By being positive about mistakes, you show your team how to take responsibility for the entire spectrum of the work day – the successes, the mundane, and the mistakes.

Looking for more tips on motivating and engaging your employees? Get our free guide, How to Develop a Top-notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business, to learn how to help your people and your business thrive.