Employee makes a mistake: Fire or promote?

Growing up, we’re taught that a mistake is the same as a failure.

In fact, our school’s grading system was set up so that the more mistakes you made, the lower your grade. Peter Drucker, often referred to as the man who invented management, has been quoted as saying “I would never promote a man into a top-level job who has not made mistakes, and big ones at that. Otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.”

With so many companies inventing, innovating and disrupting, this view may be even more applicable today. Finding employees that are creative and willing to take a risk for the betterment of the company is like finding buried treasure during the Gold Rush. Occasionally some fool’s gold gets mixed in, a person that makes mistakes because of negligence, not caring or carelessness, at your expense. These employees are likely ready for more training, better supervision or a different position.

An environment where employees know they can take reasonable chances and try new things exists when you create a culture that encourages it. Some companies show they are proud of the “learning mistakes” that took them to a great idea. When a founder tells stories about their own mistakes, it makes it clear they aren’t infallible, and creates a culture that others can also make mistakes and be honest and successful.

Jack Welch tells the story of when he was 24, and blew up the part of a GE plant he was responsible for. He was experimenting with a different mixture, which caused the explosion.

The way you and your leadership team behave, believe and reward will determine if you are developing an innovative, honest, growth-oriented organization. For that to work, when a mistake is made:

Great leaders
■  Allow and encourage employees to try new things, make mistakes and do not place blame.

 Great employees
■  Honestly admit when a mistake is made.
■  Identify what needs to be fixed and put a system in place so it is not repeated.
■  Quickly switch to recovery mode and learn something from their mistakes so they can move on.
■  Do not repeat.

You can find a multitude of stories and quotes from successful people about the benefits of embracing mistakes:
■  “A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new.” — Albert Einstein
■  “Mistakes are the stepping stones to wisdom.” — Brene Brown
■  “The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” — Thomas Watson, founder of IBM

Without mistakes we wouldn’t have potato chips, slinkies, Post-it Notes or penicillin. In fact, without Christopher Columbus’ math mistake, he wouldn’t have discovered America.