How do you handle an employee’s big mistake?

There’s a well-worn business story, likely worked over by the internet to the level of urban legend. The tale’s wisdom makes it much too good to debunk. Thomas J. Watson, the CEO of IBM supposedly is confronting an employee over a very expensive mistake. The employee naturally expects to get fired, but Watson is said to have replied, “Fire you? I just spent $$$$$$$ (legendary amount of your choice) educating you.”

Small business owners aren’t usually the victim of an employee’s million dollar mistake. Or at least none survive to recount the story. But serious and costly errors do occur. The question is how to respond. Retribution? Sanctions? The options may be limited by employment law, if not practicality.

It may be hard to take much of a leadership lesson from an executive who last worked for the corporate giant in 1956. A more contemporary and easily appreciated story comes courtesy of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. This article recounts how he counseled receiver Alshon Jeffery recently after he missed what could have been the game-winning catch.  You don’t have to follow football or be familiar with the Cinderella story of the Eagle’s Foles to admire his reaction to his devastated teammate as he processed his own disappointment at losing the big game.

This episode allows business owners to ask themselves whether they could control their own anger and disappointment over a big loss and instead use compassion and long-term thinking in the recovery.


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