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February 27, 2012
How to Manage When Your Employee Screws Up
The toughest thing for a manager to do is to criticize or correct a team member. It’s a charged task, which, while necessary, too often pushes a manager’s buttons. The key to successfully negotiating this meeting and getting a decent outcome is to leave your baggage and your ego at the door.
Everyone screws up. It’s a natural and expected part of business life. Rarely is the screw-up life, business, or job threatening. Some things are clear mistakes. A deadline is missed. A budget is blown. Instructions are not followed. Your guy pisses off an important client or superior. Somebody acts like a jackass in a meeting. But in many cases the degree of error or the very existence of error or misjudgment can be in doubt.
Here’s four ways to help your teammates course correct and maintain your sanity.
Take a Personality Cue. Most people run true to their personality type. The hyper guy responds in a hyper way. The casual guy lets it run off his back. The uptight person cries. The skeptic talks back and minimizes. Know who you are confronting before you sit down. Factor in how they act and talk. You can predict their likely reaction or response. You probably already have a read on how they are feeling and what motivates them. Don’t start a session without focusing on the individual’s personality and anticipating how it might go based on your experience with them.
Remember Learned Behavior. From the time we are children we learn how to take in and mostly ignore criticism. We are masters at resisting behavior modification. Our parents try their best. They threaten, bribe, intimidate, cajole, plead, and promise. It rarely works. Humans have developed complex, often unconscious, ways to protect our egos and deflect negative ideas, feelings, and comments. This becomes baked into our personalities. Most of us are creatures of habit. We think and do things in repeatable patterns. Frame the issue in terms of those patterns to open the conversation in a practical way.
Frame the Angle of Attack. Posture, volume, word choice, location, and attitude frame the conversation. And though once in a long while it makes sense to act out and scream obscenities at somebody while waving your fist in their face, it’s never the most productive or politically correct approach.
Sit or stand at the same level. Face each other directly. Take an even, matter-of-fact tone. This is business. It’s not personal. Most people know what they did and already feel bad. Don’t fan those flames. There is an implied threat in the situation. Diffuse it. Your job is to coolly and calmly dissect the situation. Do a quick post-mortem. Develop consensus on what was or went wrong. Then sketch out a future plan to fix things or prevent a recurrence.
Empathize. Their screw-up is your screw up, too. Don’t get emotional. Don’t get nervous about how their actions will reflect on you. It’s not about you. It’s about you getting somebody else to think or do things differently. Think of it as a course correction. Approach it by thinking “We hit a snag; now we’re going to plan B.” Be direct. Avoid telling stories about your previous mistakes. The more time you spend talking about it, the less effective you are. You want to communicate that you are in the same boat. Get the idea across that things need to be different and better and that you and he/she have to work together to fix the problem. Get agreement on that premise. Then stop. Stop in the moment. Stop for the future. Don’t bring it up again unless there is a repeat of the problem. You owe your teammates the benefit of the doubt and the confidence that they will work toward an appropriate fix.

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Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.
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