Avoidable mistakes are a reasonable cost of trusting employees

Pretty much all of the advice I’d give to employers to improve working conditions and productivity boils down to a single statement: treat employees like adults. So it was particularly mortifying when I recently made a mistake that could have been avoided if my employer had treated me like a child.

My downfall came on a conference trip. Things were going smoothly – I’d made it to the right city in a different country. I’d checked into the right hotel. But when I turned up to the conference venue, I was denied entry.

Which was fair, given that I hadn’t registered. Or checked whether anyone had registered me on my behalf. Or received any emails from the conference organisers that indicated that they were expecting me. Fortunately, I was able to buy a ticket on the door.

I have no excuse for neglecting to register – the best I can offer is that I’d been busy, but that’s a poor reason for such an obvious oversight. It’s not like I’d never gone to a conference before. And because I had previous experience, I was trusted to know what I was doing. I’m glad I work somewhere where that is the case, even if it does leave me free to make embarrassing mistakes. It also makes business sense to trust employees and accept occasional mistakes, when the relative cost of those mistakes is small compared to, say, employing someone to check that everyone travelling on business has actually registered for their event – which, especially for a large company, would be a huge time and cost sink. Even an automated reminder message – ‘Have you remembered to book your conference ticket?’ – has a motivational cost, as most employees wonder why they’re being patronised with such a basic prompt.

Mistakes will always happen, no matter how foolproof you try to make a system. It’s only if a mistake has serious consequences, or if it happens repeatedly, that you need to take action – whether that’s putting extra checks in your systems, or giving staff extra training. What’s more important is establishing a workplace culture where people can talk openly about their mistakes, so that others are reminded not to do something similar. That seems like a grown-up way of handling things.

My mistake has already helped a friend of mine. As they listened to my tale, a look of horror passed over their face. While they had successfully registered for a conference starting in two days’ time, they’d just realised they’d arranged travel to the wrong city. Fortunately, they realised in time to rebook everything and get to the right location. Now I’ve told you about our mistakes, I hope you can avoid them too.