How you deal with mistakes made by colleagues or the boss

Error culture expert Elke SchüttelkopfPhotographer Franz Helmreich

Nobody likes to make mistakes – especially not at work. Because many a mishap has consequences and leads to dissatisfied business partners, customers or superiors. If a colleague or even the boss points out your own mistake, it can be uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s exactly the other way around and you notice for yourself: Your colleague or superior did something wrong. How should you make him or her aware of this? And what to do if the boss is not at all easy to respond to criticism? coach, management trainer and management consultant Elke Schüttelkopf asked these questions. In her work, she deals a lot with the error culture in companies and has written, among other things, the book “Learning from Errors”. It is clear to them that mistakes have to be pointed out – but it is important to address them in the right way.

Ms. Schüttelkopf, what should I do if I notice that my boss has made a mistake?

In a situation like this, a few emotions quickly arise: on the one hand, the anxiety of having to tackle the hot iron as a “subordinate” and the associated fear of negative reactions, on the other hand also a bit of glee at having caught the supervisor who otherwise digs his fingers in my wounds.

So do you prefer to do nothing?

It is always wrong to say and do nothing, especially in the case of critical errors! But approaching superiors with submissiveness is just as wrong as arrogance and arrogance. This only doubles the mistakes: I contribute to the mistake of the manager by a behavior error by choosing the wrong tone and no longer being factual.

So what to do

In this situation it is helpful to think about how I would like to deal with my own mistakes: quick feedback on a factual level and in an appreciative conversation, if possible in private. Respect is not a one-way street! Every manager has earned it. After all, managers are also people who make mistakes. Therefore, just like your team members, you can expect understanding.

What if a colleague makes a mistake?

The same motto applies to colleagues: Point out the incorrect facts in a friendly, collegial tone and, if you like, also point out how the correction or improvement can be made. Not “YOU wrote a lousy report”, but “This and that doesn’t fit, please do it this way and that”.

Are there certain types for whom certain strategies work particularly well or poorly?

I am often asked what to do if the boss is choleric or the colleague is a sensitive person who is overly sensitive to criticism. Nobody is perfect! As with everyone, I pay attention to my counterpart and coordinate words and tones. But it is best not to complicate matters with certain strategies, but to address the error objectively and in an appreciative tone!

Which type of person works best with what?

Of course, I can play down, downplay, flatter, blame others, etc. and want to score with that. But I score most when I show understanding, communicate objectively and respectfully and offer support in overcoming errors. This is how I create trust and demonstrate collegiality and competence!

How do I deal with someone embarrassing me in front of the entire workforce?

If someone, regardless of whether a manager or colleague in front of the team, embarrasses me, the person makes a mistake when they point out a mistake – a mistake in behavior! I react confidently when I say calmly and in a friendly manner: Thank you for drawing my attention to the mistake. Next time please come to me and tell me directly. I appreciate collegiality!

On Elke Schüttelkopf’s website you can find more information on the topic of error culture.


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