Dealing with Employee Mistakes: How Do You and Your EA Address Them?

October 8, 2019

By: Mackenzie Doheny


Let’s be SUPER real — absolutely no one on this planet is perfect, and every single one of us makes mistakes. Things get overlooked, we get too busy, we forget. We wrote it on our sticky note, then stuck it to the inside of our notebook, transferred it to our to-do list, and then highlighted and crossed it out when we were done. Whatever system your executive assistant uses, there is always the potential it could fail. When it does, how should you as the leader respond?

Let’s say this “mistake” causes you, as a leader, embarrassment and communicates a sense of unreliability, if not incompetence, to an important client. You take ownership of the mistake to your client…but now the client may think less of you. And your confidence has dropped, even a tiny bit, in your assistant. With an eye toward future potential mistakes (and subsequent losses to revenue and/or goodwill), should you set executive assistant expectations by punishing, implementing a new system, adding more checks and balances, or simply moving on?

Here are three steps you could take, along with administrative problem-solving examples:

1. Bring it up

Bring the mistake up with your assistant once the waters have calmed. Don’t let too much time pass, and don’t bury the issue (even if you’d like to forget the incident ever occurred). Be sure to use the Golden Rule and treat them how you would want to be treated if you made a mistake with absolutely no malice or bad intention involved. It’s a simple mistake. Let them know what happened and if there were unintended consequences. If they are the kind of assistant that you want to keep around, they will care, and they will take this to heart. They will search deep and wide for the “how” and “why,” and they will use it to learn from the context for that situation.

Even though the exact circumstances that caused them to overlook something may not ever happen again (meaning there may not be a one-size-fits-all fix), at the very least, it brings it to their attention. Speaking from years (and years) of EA experience, I can tell you that this is important to them.

2. Use this opportunity to see if there are underlying reasons for the lapse

If your EA responds in a confrontational, defensive manner, this is a bigger issue than a simple overlook. Dig in and see if there is stress or worry there. Give your EA space to communicate their stress or feeling of overload, but also let them offer you a solution. It’s possible that they have an unspoken beef with you personally. If so, be willing to hear it.

You don’t have to agree with their position, but be willing to hear it and be willing to take the same degree of responsibility for it that you would expect your EA to take. Does this diffuse the tension and bring the conversation back to a place where you can converse easily, and both learn from the situation? Or does the defensiveness continue? If the defensiveness does continue, seek to communicate what you’re doing to change or take things off your EA’s plate. In a healthy workplace culture, there are pathways to share and address frustrations that keep people from boiling over and engaging in counterproductive behavior. Be willing to commit to this sort of culture.

3. Take a holistic look at your EA’s quality of work

What does your EA’s work look like overall? Is there a consistent area where mistakes are frequent but nowhere else? Maybe there is something about this area that they don’t understand or that confuses them, and they still haven’t sorted it out. It may be time to create an executive assistant daily checklist to improve their performance on troublesome tasks.

Other questions to ask yourself include:

  • Are mistakes so infrequent that when they do happen it stands out so badly it’s like someone wore Lady Gaga’s meat dress to the office?
  • Do they have a reputation of being a little….spacey… or incompetent, but at least they show up every day and are reliable?

In other words, don’t let one mistake or a few mistakes over some years’ time color how you view your assistant; take the whole picture into view before you make a judgment.

Setting Executive Assistant Expectations

You hire an EA so you DON’T make mistakes, DON’T drop balls and DO remember everything. They are an extension of you and are there to essentially augment and enhance your experience as a leader through their work. For this reason, mistakes seem even more obvious and severe by an EA than if a director or other leader put the wrong address in an invite. A senior leader will be forgiven for this — “They are too busy, too overloaded, are really bad at Outlook, etc.”— but if an EA does it, that is specifically what they are hired for and so it becomes glaring. AND it’s what we are hired for…so we need to know.

If you assume mistakes were done out of malice and seek to lay blame, you will lose every time with an EA. If you assume that we are there for you and that our job security rests on your success, you will win. We CARE. So much. And only want your experience as a leader to be a great one. Bear this in mind as you listen to and coach your EA.

If you are looking for continued guidance to become a better executive, the CO2 team is here to help. Learn more about our executive training services and how they can prepare you for the challenges of your important role.

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