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How to tackle mistakes within your team

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Navigating concerns with your staff can be tricky, but leading accountant and AccountingWEB writer Chris Williams has the solution to successful feedback strategies.

26th Apr 2021
Community Assistant AccountingWEB
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Let’s be honest, we all make mistakes. Especially after the year we’ve had.

But addressing errors and areas of concern within your team is crucial, not just for employee improvement but also for successful practice management.

AccountingWEB member Murphy1 brought this issue to the fore in a recent Any Answers post, where the member described a trained in-house staff member who lacks attention to detail. Recent errors from the payroll team member include a wrongly issued P45 and a furlough blunder. 

So, if a member of staff slips up, how do you begin to deal with the issue in a proactive and respectful manner? We asked AccountingWEB tax writer and former Mazars technical officer Chris Williams, who has over 20 years experience of managing teams.  

Don’t wait around

Rule number one: tackle the problem head on. By not addressing the issue as soon as possible, your team will likely acquiesce to an incorrect way of doing things. 

If you then raise the problem with an employee further down the line, you’ll be met with resistance; they might question the reasons for the sudden change in procedure.

“The most important thing is to modify people's attitudes and behaviors and get a cultural change,” commented accountancy and management expert Williams.

Take responsibility

It’s important to avoid placing blame on your staff, both for team morale and for proper management. Ultimately, your staff are following orders based on training. By focusing on the quality of training you're providing your team, their confidence and skill will continue to grow.

“I don't believe that you can say that it always must be the fault of the person who makes the mistake. I think that the responsibility always lies with whoever's managing them to ensure that they're properly trained and properly prepared,” said Williams.

Taking responsibility also sets a good example for your team. It directly teaches them to take responsibility themselves.

“The moment they take more personal responsibility, the work they present for checking, needs less checking,” said Williams.

Communication is key

Williams' mantra at work is there is no such thing as a bad question, except the one that you don’t ask.

Frequently questioning your team about their feelings on their process, strategy, and productivity at work, you can quickly identify places where you might need improvement. This helps to prevent issues cropping up in the first place.

“If you have colleagues share information and see the same problems recurring, then is there a fault in the system? Is there a fault in the software you’re using? Identifying areas of weakness and correcting them and being open to admitting mistakes is key,” said Williams.

He advised avoiding telling people directly what to do. Instead, ask them to question and explain their methodology. By the time they’ve explained the problem, they’ve improved their understanding of it and are therefore halfway to a solution.

Encouraging a team member to process things in this way will immediately improve their self-worth as they’ve done the work themselves.

Sandwich strategy

AccountingWEB member Refs1 recommended employing the sandwich strategy with employee feedback: start with a positive, move on to areas of concern, and then finish on a positive.

This can be a very constructive and uplifting way of tackling issues. Williams recommended making sure that there is enough substance on either side of your sandwich; try to avoid the “all meats, no bread” outcome.

Aim to break things tactfully, and use the opportunity for positive feedback to really show your appreciation for your employee’s hard work.

The checklist approach

AccountingWEB member tom123 also suggested using checklists with your team, which effectively communicates exactly what needs to be done and prevents problems cropping up down the line.

Checklists are all about proper planning. They alleviate the need to digress from the task at hand as you don’t need to stop and think about what to do next, it’s all on a list in front of you.

“It’s a very useful approach to take, but it has to be applied intelligently,” said Williams.

He explained that checklists should be referred to throughout the process, rather than at the end. Ticking things off as you go ensures staff to remember what they have and haven’t done, and allows the checklist to be valid as a tool for getting everything done and in the right order.

Put it forward as a liberating process - it enables people to play to their strengths.

“It’s no different from doing a Sudoku puzzle, where you write little numbers in the corner of the squares,” he said.

Encourage autonomy

Ultimately, you want to be encouraging people to create their own checklists, but be careful not to tie your team down too rigidly to procedures.

“If they’re engaged in an assignment, they have so many variables to contend with,” Williams commented. “People have to be enabled to fill in the blanks themselves.”

Williams recommends setting out these principles of how to go about a task:

  1. Who are the principles involved?
  2. Where are you?
  3. Where do you want to be?

These are the definitive variables. Everything else is about plotting a map through uncharted territory.

“Make sure that people ascertain what their objectives are. Only when you know the objective can you start to construct the way forward,” Williams explained.

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