Make Mistakes Matter

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How you respond to the mistakes of your team members can make or break your leadership efforts.  Here are four suggestions for demonstrating servant leadership when correcting team member mistakes.  

1. Praise in public, correct in private

An early lesson for new supervisors is when and where to correct performance issues. When it comes to appropriate correction, timing is of the essence. You want to have your feedback and correction received with the least interference possible. Privacy furthers this goal by removing the element of embarrassment. Private correction also affords leaders the space to speak directly. The opposite may be true when it comes to praise. Like anything, employees are individuals and receive input uniquely — positive and negative. If an employee is open to public praise, do not be sparing in providing it. 

2. Own your own mistakes

While it’s valuable to have an eye for the behaviors and performance of others, remember to be mindful of your own performance and areas of needed improvement. Doing so demonstrates humility, a key attribute of servant leaders. Humility is an attractive leadership quality that earns the silent support of your team. It also models the behaviors you hope to see from those you lead. Authenticity and genuineness follow humility. Defensive leaders, those who evade responsibility or blame others, have the opposite effect. Defensive leaders confuse their team members, create an environment of distrust and distort the leadership view. Don’t miss the plank in your own eye as you identify the sawdust in the eyes of others.

3. Be solution- not blame-oriented  

Having a harsh response to mistakes stifles creativity. It makes people fearful of considering the most common actions, since doing so might result in an abrasive reaction from their leader. Robert Greenleaf’s Best Test asks, “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” A servant-led environment is consistent with creativity; team members and leaders agree to view mistakes as opportunities, not disappointments. Leaders who blame further a climate of fear in the workplace, fracture relationships and cause hypersensitive team members — people afraid to do the jobs they were hired to do.  

4. Correct mistakes with grace and mercy

What good are servant leaders if when things go wrong, they adopt a command and control approach? Poor leader models have gifted servant leaders with the greatest opportunity to separate their styles and approaches from those of command and control leaders. A servant leader’s corrective approach will leave a longstanding impression on the people being corrected, good or bad. Correcting with grace doesn’t mean allowing poor performance to slide. It means committing time to build trust and being willing to tap into the trust reserves when warranted to provide candid, timely, and thoughtful feedback and correction.  

How leaders correct mistakes is important. For servant leaders, these times of uncertainty and stress can build trust and validate their care of those they lead. These trust-building moments happen infrequently, so when they do, it’s important that servant leaders make the most of them. As you pursue servant leadership, check your thinking often and approach employee failure with the mindset of grace. You will appreciate the trust you earn from those you lead.   

Malcolm A. Hankins is a public servant, non-profit chair and keynote speaker. His focus is on leadership effectiveness, employee relations, community engagement and ministry.