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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Somebody made a mistake. Should you get mad?

Mistakes happen, and we’re often told that the most important thing is how we respond when they do. However, there’s something we need to do before we respond.

The first, and most important, step in dealing with mistakes is to understand what caused the mistake – the root cause. There are several different causes, and each requires a different response to effectively prevent the mistake from happening again.

The most common root causes of mistakes are:

  1. Lack of work ethic or attention to detail (also laziness)

  2. Lack of training

  3. Environmental challenges

Let’s take each of these in turn.

First, lack of work ethic or attention to detail. We often jump to this root cause for mistakes immediately, but that rapid conclusion is also often wrong. This cause suggests a character flaw, but laziness is actually a third-core value problem. If something is important, but the person doesn’t pay attention to detail because he or she doesn’t understand why the details matter, then we need to show them. Most people want to do the right thing; what they lack is the bigger picture and the emotional investment in that vision becoming reality. Help them understand those things and they will be engaged and avoid mistakes. If there really is a lack of motivation at the root of the mistake (perhaps demonstrated by repeated mistakes) then we have a performance counseling and human resource challenge.

The second common root cause is a learning problem. In these cases, the person did not have the knowledge of how to perform the task correctly. We need to diagnose learning problems because they are easily fixed through training, whether individual or group. Learning problems are hard to see because people don’t like to admit they didn’t know, so they won’t tell us outright – you have to ask! Learning problems also show us the challenges in our work processes, areas that might be improved to be more easily completed (and therefore less error-prone). Once we fix a learning problem, we generally won’t have the same issue again, making these mistakes valuable opportunities to improve the organization.

The third root cause of mistakes are environmental factors. These are things that distract or inhibit people from performing their tasks properly. This can also happen when personnel have too many things occurring simultaneously, and therefore too much stress, which lessens focus on the task at hand. Like learning problems, these causes can be remedied when they are properly diagnosed by improving the environment (for example, lessening background noise or distractions) or by decreasing stress.

There are other reasons, including personal challenges outside of work, but I’m going to leave these alone for now because they tend to be more about second-core relationships.

Here’s the key: to get to the root cause of a mistake, we need to talk to the person who made the mistake. It’s easy to immediately start judging and being angry, but that prevents us from understanding and addressing the mistake. If we take the time to understand the mistake, we may have an opportunity to not just fix the root cause and prevent the mistake from happening again, but we may also be able to strengthen our relationship with the person who made the mistake. That’s lemonaide from lemons, as they say.

The Exercise

Your exercise for this concept is simple – just write down your answers to these questions (yes, write!).

Thing about the last time one of your staff or team made a mistake.

  • What was the specific thing this person did wrong?

  • What was your response to him or her?

  • Did you identify the root cause?

  • If so, how – what specific steps did you take to investigate?

  • Finally, how did you address the mistake, to the person and the organization?

  • Do you believe it will address the root cause?

  • If not, what do you need to do to address the root cause now?

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