The afternoon of Saturday, May 25, 1978, proved to be an exciting one for air show aviator Robert Hoover. Bob, as he was most often called, was used to excitement inside of his Shrike Commander twin-piston. He'd served as a fighter pilot in WWII, was a test pilot, a flight instructor, and had just completed an awesome airshow before 6,000 people on this day. Short on time, Bob instructed a young serviceman to refuel his plane with precisely sixty gallons of 100 octane gasoline. Bob repeated the instruction a second time and then asked a third time to ensure that the young man correctly fueled the bomber. The young man confirmed and Bob started his flight, bringing along with him two passengers.
"Everything was normal and checked out perfectly," Bob recalled until "All of a sudden, at about 300 feet, I realized I didn't have any power in the Shrike. I started losing airspeed." Even though the gauges indicated that nothing was wrong, he couldn't get power out of the engines and was forced to look for a safe place to land. Unfortunately, this was not easy.
Brown Field is atop a mesa, surrounded by the deep ravines outside of San Diego, California. Returning to the airport was out of the question, so he flew down into a ravine, maximizing his gliding speed, then suddenly pulled up, placing it atop the opposite side of the ravine, hitting a rock pile that caved in the nose and ripped the instrument panel from its mounts.
Luckily, no one was hurt. While waiting for emergency crews, he realized that there could be only one cause to his exciting adventure that afternoon: the young serviceman must have fueled his Shrike with jet fuel instead of gasoline.
Returning to the hanger, Bob demanded, "Where's the line boy who serviced my plane?" Most seemed reluctant to tell him, when one spoke up and said, "He's outside."
Hoover went over, put his arm around the young man, and said, "There isn't a man alive who hasn't made a mistake. But I’m positive you'll never make this mistake again. That's why I want to make sure that you're the only one to refuel my plane tomorrow. I won't let anyone else on the field touch it."
By chance has anyone ever let you down? How did you feel about it? What was your reaction?
While we may all aspire to do as Bob Hoover did on that airstrip in 1978, my guess is that most of us don't. If you're like me, you address the situation, make the person feel guilty about the situation, and then you are super cautious to never give that person a big responsibility again. Although this may make us feel good, it is not the best way to show our people that we care.
EVERYONE MAKES MISTAKES
Truly, as Bob stated, everyone makes mistakes. Uncommon leaders separate themselves by how they respond to the mistakes of others. They actually look for opportunities to extend grace, to forgive and forget, and to give second chances. They know that this is not easy to do and that there is the risk that they may mess up again, but their unconditional care to another pushes them on to providing a second chance.
When a leader gives a second chance, it sends several messages:
I endorse you as a person
I'm willing to invest in your personal collateral
I understand mistakes are normal
I want to strengthen our personal relationship
I trust you
I will also need second changes
I care about you first and the business second
Despite the fact that there are so many positive messages sent when we give someone a second chance, it often is not our first response. I recall being at an SHRM (Society of Human Resource Managers) conference a few years ago. I was to speak later in the day, so I showed up early and attended a few break-out sessions to get a taste of the experience. In the opening keynote, a highly-regarded (and may I add, well paid) presenter was talking about "bad employees". With a room full of HR directors, he explained that once we spot a bad employee, we must do all we can to remove that employee from our company as soon as possible. His message was persuasive and I saw a lot of heads nodding up and down. As for me, I started to become unhinged. Of course, we'd love to quickly get rid of people that mess up. It is so much easier to say "Get rid of them" than to consider giving them a second chance, so I understood why everyone was nodding their head. But this thinking is so wrong.
Simply calling one of our people a "bad employee" is bad practice. We don't have bad employees. What we have are employees with bad behaviors or bad habits.
Removing an employee before correcting the employee is a lazy response.
If we look for bad, we will find bad…in anyone.
The chance of hiring someone worse than your bad employee is high.
If your people start to see that you simply get rid of the problems instead of helping people learn through their mistakes, they will take note.
I know that this might make some of you leaders cringe. This is not a popular philosophy and there are books, consultants, and maybe even your superior who say that these types of employees have to go now. Perhaps they do, but before we push the "you're fired" button, let's make sure they've had chances to improve.
WHEN TO GIVE A SECOND CHANCE
If you're curious to know when to continue to work with them and when to stop giving chances, permit me to provide to you a few things to watch for. If any of the following are true, it might be in your best interest to continue to give them a chance.
You've not set up clear expectations. Maybe the person continues to fail you because you've failed to be clear about what you expect. Be sure they know exactly what you expect of them before you blame them on their failure.
Does the person own up to their mistake/bad behavior? If they are willing to learn, you should be willing to help them.
Are they going through a rough time at home? Has there been sickness, divorce, or death in the home? If so, this is a time for grace.
Their mistakes don't risk serious financial or legal trouble. If the risk is low, it may benefit you to err on giving them multiple chances.
Is the behavior out of character for the person? If your employee has had a great record and suddenly something goes terribly wrong, this is probably an isolated incident and won't happen again.
Are they failing in their current position, but have strengths you don't want to lose? I once worked with a head custodian that said, "I train them, I transfer them before I terminate them." That is, he ensured they were properly trained for their role. If that doesn't work, he'd transfer them to a different role to see if that might help. Only then would he consider firing them.
You've not documented any previous bad behavior. I hate to say it, but this one is on you. If you've noticed and addressed bad behavior but have not documented anything, you're going to have to give it a second chance.
If giving them a second chance feels like the right thing to do, then do it. In our family, we give lots of second chances. We do this by simply saying, "Hey, let's do a redo." For example, just yesterday my 13-year-old daughter Ande emotionally escalated a situation into yelling after I asked a pretty innocent question. That caused me to raise my voice, she ran to her room, yelling even louder, and slammed the door. Whoops. So, after a couple of minutes, I said through her door, "Ande, can we do a redo." She came out, said she'd like to do that, and we tried the situation over again.
If an employee caused a line to go down, if they failed on a sales call, if they didn't treat a customer right, if they barked at a fellow employee, or if they called in sick when they weren't really sick, just tell them, "Hey, Frank, let's do a redo." Give them grace, and allow them to try it over again. In essence, this is exactly what Bob Hoover did with the young man on the airfield. Honestly, there is no better way to show you care than doing a redo.
WHEN TO QUESTION A SECOND CHANCE
Before I end this blog post, I do want to relate to you that you don't have to always give a second chance. There are times when you need to move to action when you need to create an improvement plan, or you need to work with human resources on moving the person out. While there are many such situations, here are a few to be aware of.
They are breaking the law. Stealing, sharing confidential information, fighting, and other illegal behaviors are deal-breakers. There may be times when you can give a second chance, but if your gut is telling you to stop it's OK to do so.
They don't feel sorry or are argumentative. If you call them on a behavior and they either deny it, argue it, or don't feel like it is that big of a deal, this too could lead you to move them onto an improvement plan.
The behavior is getting worse over time. Maybe they are calling in sick more often or continuing to mistreat clients, even after you've tried to help them.
They continue to undermine your authority. It's true, not everyone is going to like you all the time. However, if a certain employee continues to bad-mouth you, not follow your directions, and discredit your ability to lead, you can stop giving them a second chance.
You are getting complaints from other employees. This one is critically important. If others are frequently coming to you about the behaviors of a certain employee, it's time to move them on. Otherwise, you'll lose credibility with your team and will have even bigger problems to deal with.
I mention these cautiously because first and foremost, we need to be doing all we can to show care to our employees. Our default thinking should be, "How can I help this person become better?" If we've exhausted all we can do, then it may be time to move them into the track of termination. If this is your decision, please know that it is just as important to do so with a caring heart now as it was when you were giving them a second chance. In the end, no matter what their behaviors are, uncommon leaders unconditionally care.