Coaching to Eliminate Errors

Matt Meuleners, Executive Partner at FOCUS Training, shares tips on how to coach employees to reduce and eventually eliminate repeated errors: 

A manager I meet with regularly called me to vent this morning.

"I give up. This new tech I hired is just not getting it. I've showed him again and again, but he keeps making the same mistakes. How do I get through to him?"

This frustration is common among managers and leaders everywhere. We want our people to succeed... and the work to get done well. 

If you find yourself in this scenario, start by asking some clarifying questions:

  • Are these actually the same mistakes each time? Or is the employee discovering new ways to err as they repeat the process?
  • Are these actually mistakes? Or are they subjective choices that you prefer would be different?
  • Are these mistakes the fault of the employee? Or are there environmental factors that could be causing the errors?

A "no" to any of these questions does not mean there isn't a problem to overcome. However, it is a different problem than the one we are discussing here. The process of coaching an employee to reduce and eventually eliminate repeated errors is challenging because it typically combines two forces that the coach needs to impact:

1. How the employee learns
Sometimes the root cause of repeated mistakes is exactly what we like to assume - they aren't getting it. Before you blame the learner, take a hard look at how you are attempting to teach the process. If you just sat down and told them how to do it, you delivered the equivalent of a lecture. Learning experts will tell you this is one of the least effective teaching methods, particularly when teaching an individual a complex task. Instead, try talking it through, then modeling it for them to observe, and then asking them to try it while you observe. Follow that up with a bit of Q&A. This is a greater investment of time, but makes it much less likely that you will have to go through it again. In the end, you will save time (and anxiety) with a more robust teaching approach.

If you are exhausted by having to repeat yourself about how to do a process correctly for the third or fourth time, consider that this might also be part of the problem. If your teaching approach didn't connect with them last time, simply repeating yourself is unlikely to move the needle now. Try mixing up your teaching approach – a sample project, a case study, or a round of shadowing another employee are all possibilities.

2. How the employee is motivated
There are times when the barrier to improvement is not skill but desire. When an employee knows how to do the process properly, but continues to make the same errors, a skilled manager will look to the drivers of motivation. What sorts of forces help the employee to make progress in other areas, and how can you apply them here? This could mean something as simple as asking to see a preliminary report before they complete the task, which adds some personal accountability earlier in the process. This could also mean walking the employee through the impact that their mistakes are having on their coworkers, which connects their results to a social force.

In these cases when the error is really stemming from a lack of care (or self-awareness), motivating the employee to invest extra thought in the process is key. Leaders should remove as many barriers as possible to help. For example, limiting distractions or conflicting priorities for the employee on the day when that process needs to be their focus.

These are just two considerations to help an employee learn from and eliminate errors in their work. Like any performance issue, the willingness of a manager to patiently coach is a significant factor. Take a deep breath, think about your approach, and try again.