People Management Basics: How to Deal with Employees’ Mistakes

Today I’ve enjoyed an exciting and encouraging interview with Denys Zhadanov made by Ukrainian entrepreneur and blogger Oles Timofeev. Denys Zhadanov is a person from Forbes 30 under 30 list. As in any success story, we see the right person, who was at the right time in the right place. It’s hard to believe, but Denys had been developing iOS apps before the App Store appeared. The application ReaddleDocs, developed by his team, appeared in the Apple App Store since its opening in 2008 and hit the top 100 apps in the App Store. Correctly chosen strategic direction of the company’s development allowed a small startup from Ukraine to develop into a large international company.

Denys expressed many worthwhile ideas. Including the selection of the team and its management. For example, in the context of the software development industry, I like the great idea of ​​the priority of ethics, attitude and motivation over professional skills: “It is much easier to hire a person and shape him into an expert, than to hire an expert and shape him into a person.”

However, in this article I would like to dwell on one thought expressed by Denys regarding his reaction to the mistakes of his team members, namely: “You can make a mistake once with us. You cannot do it a second time.”

Denys Zhadanov: “You can make a mistake once with us. You cannot do it a second time.”

I have heard such a principle from managers at various levels in various industries. It’s quite popular. So, as a popularizer of efficient and competent management, I would like to expose this management myth.

Wrong Assumption

At first glance, it may seem to a manager that the threat to be fired for making a mistake is a good idea: employees will pay more attention to their work, approaching it more carefully and taking maximum possible responsibly.

What Happens in Reality?

The main problem of this principle: it does not work as intended. Furthermore, it works in the opposite direction: while intended to motivate, it demotivates.

In fact, the cost of fault is too high to take such a risk, so, your team-members would prefer to avoid responsibility. This, in turn, leads to the following:

  1. Decrease of initiative (because being initiative is too risky and will be punished by dismissal in case of failure);
  2. Avoidance of taking responsibility for decisions (employees will spend time searching for all possible approvals from top-management to cover all the bases);
  3. Group decision making (regular meetings on any occasion to dilute the responsibility on a group of people, so, later will be impossible to find the accountable person);
  4. Negative environment in your team, because of blame game.
  5. And so on.

Well, Got It. So, How to Deal With Employees’ Mistakes Then?

Firstly, never threaten to dismiss your employees. Dismissal is an exceptional measure, which should be applied in extraordinary cases. These cases should be described in Employment Contracts. Punishment must correspond to crime. If there are grounds for dismissal under the Employment Contract, then dismiss. But no need to walk around the office and repeat your threat. This is unproductive and creates a negative working atmosphere.


“Never threaten to dismiss your employees”


Secondly, even if your subordinate screwed up, it’s never a reason to fire him, because:

  1. The basic management functions are: planning, organizing, directing and controlling. If you as a manager perform these functions, then you have foreseen a possible worst case scenario and have taken responsibility for it. It would be very strange to dismiss a subordinate who carried out your action plan and was controlled by you.  Besides, it is hard to imagine, that a serious decision, behind which was a big risk of huge losses, was not agreed, approved and controlled by the manager. In this case the mistake is responsibility of the manager who approved the risky action plan that led to the collapse.
  2. If you hired the right person (motivated, committed, honest, dedicated, with right attitude), the fault will frustrate him anyway. He will feel strong involvement in the situation and a keen desire to correct it. Your support as a manager will multiply his motivation many times¹. So, it would be a big mistake to fire a super motivated employee, who have gained an experience at your cost. Your competitors will hire him with pleasure: you have taught him, and now he will apply knowledge to their benefit. Truly, dismissing such an employee is your biggest mistake in such a situation.

¹But only if you hired a person with right attitude, and not just a specialist with skills.


And finally, here is the checklist for a manager on how to deal with employee mistake:

  1. Treat the failure as a possible negative scenario that has happened. This should not be a surprise for you. At the stage of creating a tactical plan of action, you assumed that such an outcome could happen. Therefore, as a leader you are ready for it.
  2. Praise in public, criticize in person.
  3. Always control your emotions. Be diplomatic. If you cannot control yourself, then managing people is not for you.
  4. Talk to employee with open mind. Start with appreciation. Do not blame, suppress, demoralize and dispirit. Be realistic. Listen. Make sure you took into account all the circumstances and different views on what happened.
  5. Coach your employee: ask questions to guide and help him to develop a recovery plan.
  6. Learn your lesson. Share your experiences with your colleagues to avoid a similar situation in the future. Perhaps, to prevent similar mistakes in the future you have to develop a set of rules that must be followed by company employees.
  7. Support and inspire all your team to minimize the damage (doubts, loss of self-confidence) from failure.
  8. Invest in trainings for your employees and executive coaching for top managers.

Following this checklist you will earn the trust of your team and authority in the organization. Your team will rally around you as their leader. You and your team become more experienced. Thus, you will extract maximum benefits from the current situation.


When you fire for mistakes you send your team a message: “Do not take responsibility”.

People make mistakes, learn lessons from them and thus grow. There is always a risk of making a mistake. So, create an environment where your team could take reasonable risk under your control. It will help your team to grow professionally, while you as a manager will grow together with your team.

If you ask me what kind of risk is reasonable? The answer is that this is manager’s responsibility to define reasonable limit of risk that your employee can take by themselves. Beyond this limit employees should come to you with their suggested action plan for your advice and approval.

There are many myths in the field of people management. And today in this article I exposed an extremely popular one. I hope you find my ideas useful.

P.S. This article was inspired by an interview, so as gratitude I invite Denys to a free consultation on people management. It would be my pleasure. Please drop me a line to arrange date and time if you are interested: