ALC English Journal Topic August 2014

You are Mistaken…

Many people are making lots of careless mistakes, such as spelling errors on important documents, and don’t edit their work before sending it on to others. How can I get them to pay more attention to details and take responsibility for the quality of their work? 


Although minor, it can be annoying when other people’s errors impact our work. After all, in the jungle it’s the mosquitoes that bother people the most! It’s possible that you’re working with irresponsible jerks, but let’s start by assuming positive intention. Imagine that your colleagues are committed to doing a good job and that these are honest mistakes. What should you do?

Be Curious, Not Furious! We tend to blame outside factors such as stress or workload for our own mistakes, but assume that other people’s errors are due to character flaws like carelessness. Avoid the “Fundamental Attribution Error” (FAE) and apply the “Assumption of Positive Intent” (API), both of which I discussed in January 2013. Ask yourself “Why would well-intentioned, conscientious people do poor-quality work and then pass on their mistakes to others?” Here are some possible causes and suggested solutions for five specific situations:

  •  They may be unaware of their mistakes. Human beings tend to avoid conflict. While colleagues may have seethed in silent resentment, these unsuspecting mistake-makers may have never received any specific feedback about the quality of their work. Tell them! (Be nice about it.) Make sure your feedback is specific and non-judgmental.
  • They are unable to use the tools available to them. With tools such as “spellchecker” available I’m honestly quite surprised to hear that minor mistakes aren’t corrected before they are passed on to others. Perhaps these people don’t know how to use these tools? Or maybe they don’t even know they exist! Tactfully inquire about their familiarity with editing support tools, then get them the help they need to learn to use these tools properly.
  • Your colleagues might not realize that the quality of their work matters. When people understand the purpose of their work their motivation increases. Make sure your colleagues understand the importance of their jobs and how they contribute to the overall success of your team and the business.
  • They might not perceive the impact of their work on others. What are the consequences to their team, customers, and the business of these mistakes? Is it ruining your reputation with partners or clients? Are their mistakes causing friction with other departments, or resulting in hours of extra work for their colleagues, thus undermining positive team spirit?
  • They lack discipline. This is the most difficult cause to address, as discipline tends to be a fundamental character trait. Smart managers hire for mindset and train for skillset. You wouldn’t hire a dog and then expect it to act like a cat! Be prepared to enforce consequences for poor quality work to inspire change.

“Why” Before “How”. Don’t prescribe before diagnosing! The most effective approach to getting people to do high-quality work depends on the root causes of poor quality. Start by finding out why these mistakes are slipping through the work process, and then take appropriate action.

Once you’ve taken reasonable steps to correct this problem, STOP! Stop accepting work that doesn’t meet agreed-upon quality standards. If you fix their mistakes they won’t have a chance to learn, grow and change. Make editing notes on the documents and send them back to the author for correction. Otherwise you become the root cause of the problem!

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