Dear Dan: Should I Let Her Blame Herself

Dear Dan,

I am a relatively inexperienced leader in a small software business.  Recently, one of my people failed to perform to her own expectations and that of our client.  

I think this mostly happened because we put her in an untenable position – and I have told her so a few times.

Naturally, in the course of trying to put the pieces back together we are getting several opportunities to talk about the failure.

When we discussed this again today, I realized that she needed to hear me tell her something that she could have done better. So I told her the one thing I could think of in the moment, “You could have told me sooner that you were in trouble.”  

I could immediately see her relief – perhaps because my answer resonated with what she herself thought.

The thing is, I knew we were putting her in a difficult position as soon as we did so, and creating a great chance for some failure to occur.

This failure is NOT her fault. If anything, it is my fault!

Am I making a mistake by giving in and letting her blame herself for this?


Ready to own it

Dear Ready,

Thanks for your email. It sounds like you have a great team member.                                                                              

Talking about failure:

There’s a leaderly way to talk about failure.

Don’t be needy, blaming, or pessimistic about the future when talking about failure.

Discussing failure is essential as long as you turn toward the future to explore what to do differently next time. Distill learnings into behaviors.

You might consider asking, “What could you do differently next time?”

Don’t tell people how to improve. Ask them how THEY would improve.

If your team member successfully explains how to do things better next time, offer encouragement.

Don’t insult talented people by giving them all the answers.

Affirm and explore your team member’s suggestions for doing better next time.

  1. “That makes sense. How might you do that?”
  2. “Great idea. How could I help?”
  3. “Good observation. Let’s explore how you might implement that idea.”
  4. “What other ideas come to mind?”

Expand the conversation:

  1. “What could I do better next time?”
  2. “Have you thought about trying xyz next time?” (Use this to bring up topics that employees miss when discussing failure.)
  3. “What responsibilities do we have to our customers when we know things are running off the rails?”

Discuss intervention:

  1. Explain that you want to trust people by not meddling in their work all the time.
  2. Explore the pros and cons of leaders who want people to work without close supervision.
  3. Discuss when you should intervene.
  4. Decide when employees should come to you with problems. For example, when someone misses a milestone by 24 hours, it’s time for a conversation and course adjustment.


Leaders challenge people. This means people might fail.

It looks like you had reasonable certainty that failure was imminent. Allowing people to fail is a perilous practice.

  1. Failure as a learning tool doesn’t damage people.
  2. Discuss potential failure up front when giving stretch assignments. Ask, “What could go wrong?”
  3. Define the benefit of the stretch. How do stretch assignments help people get where THEY want to go?
  4. Never put yourself in a situation where you need to say, “I told you so,” but you never said anything.

You are responsible to set people up for success. When you see a train wreck coming, say something.

Create a “with” relationship:

Honor employees for taking responsibility. Say, “I’m thankful you’re owning this situation.”

Stand with employees. “I’m owning this failure with you. I’m responsible for creating an environment where good people succeed. I failed you.”

Use failure in the future:

The next time you get an uneasy feeling, bring up this failure.

“Remember that big failure we had last year. I’m getting an uneasy feeling about this project.”

“What did we learn last time that might apply to this challenging project?”

Blame herself or blame yourself:

  1. Honor people when they take responsibility for failure.
  2. Take responsibility for failure WITH employees.
  3. Learn and move forward with confidence.

You have my best,


What suggestions do you have for “Ready to own it”.

Note: I suspend my 300 word limit on weekends.