Turning Mistakes into Learning Opportunities

employees Learning & Development

As much as we try to avoid them, mistakes are simply a part of everyday life. Unfortunately for business owners and managers, those mistakes—when made by employees—can have significant consequences.

Customers can be lost, the company’s reputation can be damaged, legal and financial liability can be triggered, and plenty of other issues can arise—all from the actions of one or a few employees.

When an employee makes a big mistake, it’s not uncommon for a company to consider terminating the staff member. Indeed, the potential of being fired is probably the first thing that goes through an employee’s head when realizing he or she made a big mistake. But many companies and managers take an arguably more pragmatic approach when faced with employee mistakes. They see them as valuable learning experiences and teaching moments.

We reached out to managers and business owners and asked them to share some examples of employee mistakes that turned into valuable teaching moments—for them and, potentially, for you. Sometimes, the greatest lessons come from the mistakes that we, and others, make.


Nelson Sherwin, Manager of PEO Companies:

The worst situation we had was when an employee opened a spam email and downloaded the attachment. It was malware, of course, and it infected our entire system. We had no idea how many files were compromised, or how bad the situation was, and we had to do weeks of work to make sure everything was secure and to determine what information may have been accessed by third parties, stolen, corrupted, etc. It was a nightmare.

We did learn an extremely important lesson, and that is the importance of cybersecurity training. Most breaches happen because of employee negligence, but when cybersecurity training is lacking, I place more of the blame on us than I do on the employee.

We learned quickly to upgrade all our security systems and software and go into emergency thorough cybersecurity training for employees at all levels.

Leadership Growing Pains

Zachary Weiner, Owner and CEO, Restaurant Accounting:

I have a story to share about an employee newly promoted to a leadership position. Although the organization saw his potential as a leader, the first few days of the actual execution was different from expectations because of the lack of experience.   

The employee made numerous mistakes in leading his team, which halted an ongoing project. A seasoned leader stepped in to help solve the problem. 

Still, the employee got discouraged and so extremely embarrassed that he asked the senior executives to demote him back to his former position. Today, though, the employee has managed to overcome self-doubt and is an invaluable asset to our organization. 

He helps new leaders and guides them towards being more effective team managers after he suggested to develop a better leader mentorship program. Future company leaders get hands-on training and mentorship before the company lets them handle the ropes themselves.  

Making Promises to Customers

Linda Chester, Founder of The Health Hour:

I’m a fitness trainer who also runs a health and wellness blog from home. My marketing specialist has been in the company for years and is great at what she does. However, she had a rocky start because of a huge mistake made during her first year on the job.

We hold online contests for blog subscribers. She’s the one in charge of setting that up and so I let her come up with the giveaway concept, prizes, etc. Prior to this incident, she would always get my approval on the type of contest she had in mind for that week or month.

Unfortunately, I was on vacation and she felt confident enough to post a trivia question on Facebook and announce that those who got the correct answer would win an hour-long fitness consultation with me.

It was a relatively easy question so we had about 50 people who got it right. Needless to say, I came back to work only to spend a full month just doing these free 60-minute consultations. While the giveaway did bring in new clients and followers, it wasn’t enough to compensate for the time and monetary losses that resulted from the mistake.

Other employers would probably have sent her packing, but I saw it as a learning opportunity for both of us in terms of communication and coordination. As a result, we’ve established a much more effective process on how to post on our social media channels and conduct these giveaways.

Leveraging the Power of ‘Teaching Moments’

Managers and the organizations they work for can gain many benefits by taking a deep breath and stepping back to consider the potential for learning from mistakes employees make. Yes, the damage can be costly. But the valuable lessons learned can often yield great rewards and insights.

It’s also important for managers to be careful about the messages they send when using employee mistakes as teaching moments. The idea is to use the situation as a tool to teach all employees, including the one who made the mistake. The idea is not to shame the at-fault employee.

When employees make mistakes, some managers think immediately about severing the employment relationship. But this common reaction isn’t always the best approach.

Of course, managers may encounter some team members who have a track record of mistakes such that the employees may genuinely be too much of a liability in the long run to keep around. But, for otherwise valuable team members, a mistake can serve as an opportunity to educate the entire company on the dangers of certain actions, decisions, or oversights.

What valuable lessons could you learn from the mistakes and missteps of your staff members?

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