An Employee Screws Up. This is What Their Boss Should Say in Response.

August 3, 2017

If an employee makes a mistake, the boss shouldn't get angry. Sure, let them know it's not acceptable, but it's often a coachable moment.

Part of the job of being a manager is holding people accountable. It’s a part of the job many managers hate, and also a part of the job many managers struggle with.

Say, for example, an employee misses a deadline. Obviously, the employee screwed up, and the boss needs to hold them accountable for that. But what can you say as the boss to ensure it doesn’t happen again, without alienating the employee?

In his course Time Management for Managers, LinkedIn Learning Instructor Dave Crenshaw talked in detail about this exact issue. His biggest warning – if an employee makes a mistake, the boss shouldn’t use the word “why.” As in asking "why didn't you do this?".

“At least in the English language, 'why' has a very strong connotation of personal blame,” Crenshaw said. “Instead, we want to shift the attention onto the system, the process, and what obstacles are in the way so that you can help your team member remove them.”

If you ask why, all you’ll get is a defensive employee, Crenshaw said. But, if you ask “what”, you’ll get a much different response.

Use a mistake as an opportunity to develop an employee

When an employee misses a deadline or makes a mistake, it’s a coachable moment. If you as the boss can identify what caused the screw up and help them correct it, you’ve effectively developed the employee.

The key to doing that is sending the message to the employee that you want to work with them, instead of demonizing them for the mistake, Crenshaw. Asking “what” helps send that message.

Let’s use an example. An employee misses a deadline. You as the boss can ask a very simple question in response: “what caused you to miss the deadline?”.

This question forces the employee to reflect on what exactly prevented them hitting the deadline. From there, it’ll turn into a coaching session where you can help them walk through the problem and come up with a solution. Maybe they realized they didn’t reach out to cross-functional partners early enough; next time they can correct that.  

The bigger point here

The main takeaway is that holding employees accountable doesn’t mean the boss has to yell and scream. Yes, an employee should know when they screw up, it isn’t acceptable.

But it’s also a great time for the boss to coach. Employees don’t intentionally look to miss an assignment or make a mistake; they do it because they struggle in an area. If the boss can help them in that area, they’ll go a long way to developing them.

How do you do that? Well, it really comes down to coaching. And then starts with asking what, instead of why.

Looking to develop great managers at your organization? Download our ebook on how to do exactly that.