Earlier this year, I wrote about Failure Integrity Power Transparency and Respect. This was taken from the perspective of a person who is learning how to navigate their failures or the failures of a group which includes them. In this post, I want to talk about failure from the perspective of a leader who is interacting with someone who has failed.
Public, private, and the in-between
There is a common saying, “praise in public, punish in private.” Like most highly general statements, this comment applies in a number of situations. I whole heartedly agree that you should publicly praise, whenever possible. Also, if there is a punishment to be had, it is typically most professional to handle that privately.
However, not all consequences are punishments. In fact, not all consequences are even negative. This is where I feel the general rule falls short. It is important for people to learn from others’ mistakes. The only way to do that is to know about the mistake and learn how to handle it, if they are ever in that situation. It is a real challenge to spread a message if all failures or short-comings are only handled in private.
The practice of publicly acknowledging a flaw and then immediately and publicly forgiving it.
You should be practicing active forgiveness. This works especially well when there is a formal retrospective meeting about a project or task. It is important that the issue is brought up and it is even better if the leader can convince the person or persons who failed to explain the problem themselves. The facts should be laid out in a way which is very objective. Do not attack, raise your voice, or use any hostile tones or body language. Also, avoid minimizing the impact or saying things like, “it’s OK,” or, “we all make mistakes.” When the failure is being described the impact should be accurate without embellishment or reduction.
Once the facts are on the table, the leader then must immediately forgive them. The leader should announce the forgiveness and then direct the conversation towards brainstorming actions that the team or individual can take to prevent the failure in the future or increase the chance of success.
Often, everyone will carry some tension during the failure description, uncertainty about what will come next will grip them. Then, forgiveness is declared and most people will willingly accept the lighter tone and begin saying the very things that the leader avoided saying, such as, “it’s OK.” This is the time to reinforce the concept that the failure it not OK but the person is. We must work to avoid the failure and it will not be OK next time, just like it is not OK this time. However, the person or team is forgiven and we can move on remembering the lessons without any negativity directed at the people who failed.
When the person is not OK
Naturally, you will need to deal with some people who are consistent under performers or have a pattern for causing failures. This is when private coaching or punishments need to occur. Those conversations will remain private but active forgiveness is still useful, after the person begins to show improvement.
Public active forgiveness is best suited for the in-between which is when a failure or problem has occurred but you are not dealing with a human resources issue. Instead you might be dealing with a cultural issue, a team discipline problem, short comings with following process, or general quality of work issues.