Mistakes in the workplace are inevitable. If it has not happened already, there will likely come a time in your career when someone at work is going to make a glaring error, and you will be faced with the dilemma of whether or not you should point out their mistake.

While it may be easier to ignore the mistake and avoid awkward conversations, your team could pay the price in the future. If you’re a manager, saving all of your criticism for an employee’s performance review can be counter-productive.

Experts say one of the major differences between good and great managers is giving constructive feedback to help employees with their overall growth and success. Although calling out someone’s mistakes may be uncomfortable, you are ultimately doing a disservice to the team when you do not help that person learn from their mistakes and allow them to improve. When you fail to recognize a co-worker’s mistake, you essentially stunt their growth.

Ideally, you want to address the mistake shortly after it was made, allowing the individual to learn from their mistake, ensure that the error is not repeated, and offer guidance that will preserve your relationship.

You can take the following steps to achieve all of those goals:

Step 1: Do not bring the mistake to their attention when you are feeling frustrated or angry.

Although you don’t want to use your anger and frustration as an excuse to avoid the conversation forever, it is best to take a big deep breath and get into the right frame of mind to discuss the situation calmly and professionally.

It is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes and be willing to move forward. Experts suggest putting the situation into perspective and having the discussion when you are in a better mood. Before having the conversation, consider participating in some positive activities such as taking a walk or listening to relaxing music to be in the right headspace.

Conversely, delaying the conversation can make it seem more awkward, so addressing it as quickly as possible is important. Plus, the impending conversation only fuels our stress when we procrastinate. Also, remember that you should always discuss the mistake in private. That is the most effective and respectful way to handle the conversation.

Step 2: Assess the damage of the mistake and take action based on that assessment.

Before moving forward with the conversation, you need to determine whether or not the mistake was intentional, whether it is part of a larger pattern of errors or behaviors, and of course, weigh the magnitude of the error.

There is a big difference between an unintentional mistake, which is simply part of human nature, and an intentional act that causes harm. In the latter case, immediate escalation, as well as the involvement of human resources, may be warranted.

Step 3: Any feedback offered should come in the form of assistance, always offering to be an integral part of any solution.

When someone makes a mistake, especially a big one, they can feel humiliated and isolated. That’s why it is important to let that individual know you’ve got their back. By approaching someone’s mistake with genuine kindness, you don’t just incentivize them to improve moving forward, but it sends a supportive message that everyone is on the same team.

The key to success in these conversations is to remain direct and humble. It is common for a person to become defensive when confronted by their own mistake. To criticize an individual, without discouraging them, directly state your intention and acknowledge the possibility that you may be wrong about what has transpired.  

In other words, you can say something like, “Here is the problem. I could be wrong about this, and if so, please tell me. If I am not wrong, perhaps discussing it can help us find a solution.”

You can also start the discussion from a sincere place of interest or curiosity by saying, “I noticed you skipped a part of the project. Is there a way we could execute it more efficiently next time around?” This approach avoids being combative or passive and instead approaches the situation directly and with curiosity, opening the door for beneficial dialogue.

Step 4: Always remain specific about the mistake and the effect that it has had.  

Even when you are faced with addressing a long list of mistakes, be sure to be clear and targeted. Experts say that just pointing to an error without clarity or without discussing the result of the error isn’t very useful.

To successfully criticize someone while avoiding discouragement, experts say it is important to be clear that while the mistake was wrong, the individual is not bad. In other words, it is not the result of some personality flaw. It can be helpful to share your own experiences of being criticized for similar mistakes.

Some employment experts suggest using what is known as a “situation-behavior-impact-intent method” when addressing a co-worker’s mistake.

Situation: Describe to the individual when the problem occurred.

Behavior: Focus on your observations and the facts without any judgment.

Impact: Let the individual know how the situation impacted you, positively or negatively. As an example, you might say, “When you interrupted, I felt very frustrated because the interruption broke my concentration.”

Intent: Ask the individual questions and try to learn more about their thoughts. Consider asking what was happening with them at that moment or what they were hoping to accomplish.

Step 5: In order to move forward, actions will speak louder than words.

It is one thing to say that you will let bygones be bygones once the mistake has been hashed out, but bigger or repeat mistakes can rupture trust.

If you are in a management position, you will want to give the individual an opportunity to demonstrate their reliability and credibility, perhaps by giving them new responsibilities to make sure they have learned from their mistake. It is also good, when possible, to allow the individual to redeem themselves by improving the quality of their work and taking on additional responsibilities.

In a situation where you are just a peer, don’t be afraid to send some pointers their way. At the end of the day, if your colleague’s success is important to you, it would help them to do so. After all, the best way to learn is by training, doing, and reacting to any feedback that is received.


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