A few years ago, as an IT Manager, I was sitting at my computer when an email came in from one of my team members. As it flashed up on the screen, the subject caught my eye: “I stuffed up. I mean, really stuffed up. I am so sorry”
When I opened the email, it transpired that the team member had been doing some work on a production computer system and had hit a wrong button, causing the system to become unavailable to our users. IT outages are never welcome, and explanations are always in demand. This was not a good position for this team member to be in; no one likes a non-working IT system.
The team member was well aware of the potential ramifications, but instead of hiding his mistake, he had sent an email his peers and to myself (as his manager, and the person who would have to justify and explain the outage to our management and clients). He explained exactly what he had done, and how he planned to recover from it. He also went on to suggest the possible punishments for which he felt he might be worthy.
When I looked at the email, I wasn’t excited about what this meant. Explaining system outages is never nice, and system outages caused by human error often result in people wanting blood. I stopped and read the email a few times over the next couple of minutes, while I thought of how to respond constructively. I tried to think of the positives that I could use to create something useful from this situation. There was only one positive that I could think of: a member of my team had felt completely safe in confessing to his manager and his peers that he had made a genuine mistake that had resulted in a significant impact to clients. There was a huge risk for him in making this confession; everyone knows someone who has been severely reprimanded or even lost their job as the result of an unauthorised IT change and nobody wants to be that person. Even with that knowledge, he had confessed.
With this in mind, I opted to reply all to his email with: “Thank you so much for your honesty. What do you need from me in order for us to resolve this quickly?” As I replied, replies from team members also started to come in. Some of them had a laugh at his expense; all of them offered him help, support and advice.
Once service was restored, I sat down with him to establish exactly what happened. Between us, we came up with an explanation that was truthful but would not result in too much damage for him or the team. I am not in any way suggesting that we covered the real story up; we were honest. I am also not suggesting that we took this lightly; we all knew that this wasn’t something that could be repeated in a hurry.
It felt amazing to be a part of a team where people felt safe in telling the truth. Had this team member not been honest, we may have wasted time investigating the issue when we could have been resolving it. It also felt amazing to be a part of a team who supported someone who took a risk in telling us the truth, because it most likely meant that other team members would feel safe in doing the same.
Wherever we employ humans, we will always run the risk of human error. However, how we deal with human error as leaders will determine how our teams deal with their errors.
What are some ways in which you encourage openness and honesty in your teams?