One thing many people can agree on is people are allowed to make mistakes. It is how we learn. As leaders, we have to tread carefully when we react to mistakes made by subordinates—we can either create an environment where innovation has a place or stifle it by allowing no mistakes and creating an environment where people become ‘gun-shy’ and very risk averse. The way mistakes are handled are often a combination of perception, background of the situation, the ‘precedent’, the mistake ‘offender’ and their perceived intent, and overall climate of the organization. A mistake is “an action, decision, or judgment that produces an unwanted or unintentional result” as defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary. It comes down to whether the mistake was the effect caused by defective or deficient knowledge or judgment or whether it was out of carelessness. There really is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to these situations. Ironically, we also find that it is through mistakes that we also tend to find ourselves in trouble.
Mistakes are going to happen. No level of education or training will cover every situation people will encounter or how they should act in those circumstances. There is a learning curve and everyone makes mistakes executing their duties. It is never flawless all the time. When we as leaders have people doing things that require them to complete tasks or execute duties, there is always the possibility for mistakes. It is inherent to the job and we expose them to that risk. There are a lot of moving pieces in organizations. What we should not do is jump to a conclusion that we must absolutely eliminate all mistakes by imposing measures at the outset of the first mistake and drift into micro-managerial short-sightedness. NCOs must realize there is a small but important gap between what they are taught and the execution of those concepts when it comes to discipline and enforcement of standards.
NCOs find that the military offers a ‘template’ which they can mechanically apply to many situations, or progressive discipline as it is taught in professional military education courses. What is not covered in PME is the judgment to be applied in different situations and factors that influence how each situation is addressed. People are flawed, they are different in a variety of ways, they have varying levels of maturity and aptitude, some are biased in different ways, and everyone has opinions of their own. The actions you enact on your subordinates will be critiqued by someone. While every possible scenario cannot be covered, I can say that every mistake and every ‘offender’ is different. The impact of the mistake and the different level of blatant or incorrect action varies. The key is in understanding the person, the situation, and whether it was an honest mistake or careless act. There are a slew of other considerations made when deciding any action, if any, against a subordinate.
There are several things that influence the level of corrective action against your subordinates when they mess up. Whether some of these influences are good or bad can vary. What is right for one may not be right for another—hence the honest mistake versus careless act. A subordinate that has committed similar acts in the past would likely warrant more severe administrative corrective action than a first time offense. Also, you set a precedent of sorts when you dole out formal corrective counseling for a particular offense. The severity of the act is also important—an extreme case would be that you wouldn’t give a subordinate a verbal reprimand for killing someone, just blindly following the progressive discipline model. Yet another influence on such corrective actions would be the unit’s climate at the time. You wouldn’t issue someone a letter of reprimand (most severe formal administrative corrective counseling) for a first time being late to work simply because being late was the hottest and most highly committed offense at the time. If it is a pervasive issue, there is likely another cause, perhaps a shortfall in training or the wrong equipment is issued for the job, or even confusion within the ranks about what action is correct. As leaders, our reaction with formal corrective counseling requires a balance.
Don’t flinch at the first mistake and overreact to it. Explain why the screw up was detrimental to X, Y, and Z to the person making the mistake, ask them what they think about the situation. Yelling does nothing; people just shut down. I’ve done my fair share of yelling—in retrospect, it didn’t accomplish anything except heat already flared tempers. If you know the person making the mistake knew better, ask what occurred and determine the best approach—here is where your judgment kicks in. Be fair and be consistent. Hold them accountable, but don’t be vicious. It’s a balancing act.
Allowing room for mistakes allows people to understand a situation and learn from it. Getting into the habit of trying to manage out all errors only creates more unnecessary work and is inefficient, often causing leaders to impose additional measures (read ‘impediments’) to make situations ‘foolproof’—there is a difference between solving problems and creating impediments. As previously mentioned, sometimes dinging every mistake makes people very risk averse. The only thing you can do is ensure that how you react is fair. Ask questions, evaluate the situation, counsel them, determine if further actions are needed, and move on. Be cognizant of your own perceptions toward the person and don’t let those influence your decision unless it is related to the situation at hand. Mistakes are allowed and not everything warrants paperwork or disciplinary action–sometimes a talk is all that is needed.