Avoiding errors seems like something we were all taught to do.
Our parents, throughout our schooling, and as we entered into the workforce we were told not to make mistakes, apologize when we do make one, and learn something from them. Read our first piece of Support talks with Craig Stoss and Paul Tucker, Head of Customer Support at EveryoneSocial, focuses on the last of those three points.
I recently sat down with Paul to talk about how embracing errors, instead of shaming them, can improve your support organization. Paul has been in customer support for over 15 years. He sees support as the intersection of fixing things, serving others, and technology, three passions of his since he was a child. When I met Paul over Zoom, he had a poster in the background reading “The fears we don’t face become our limits.” This sentiment summarized our conversation really well.
Paul, Let’s dive right in with what is ‘error avoidance’?
Paul: A lot of people think that error avoidance is a form of excellence — or at least a step towards excellence —I just don’t think that is the case. Many leaders unknowingly create a culture that shames mistakes and avoiding errors is applauded. For example, in a review, a leader citing a lack of errors as “That’s good. That’s what we want to see.” Contrast that with the observation “You messed up, but your motivations were correct. You upheld our company values. You were willing to explore a tough challenge in the service of our customer. You learned, and you committed to fixing it.” Gaining experience requires mistakes to be made.
During onboarding, I remind my team, “mistakes are great teachers, so don’t miss out on making a few.” No, we don’t aim to make mistakes, but experience often requires making a few mistakes from which we learn. Making no mistakes isn’t really the goal.
What does a culture that shames mistakes look like?
Paul: Don’t hear me wrong: avoiding errors is a good thing! If I’m not careful, I’ll slide into shaming errors rather than prodding my team to gain experience and pursue excellence. Rewarding error avoidance smothers a culture of humble curiosity and learning. A lot of leaders unwittingly try to shoot for no mistakes within their team, which only teaches the agents to follow a process, regardless of whether it is the right thing for the situation or the customer.
Often an error avoidance culture is created because of ego. Because when a support agent makes a mistake, it’s seen as a bad reflection on the leader. So shaming mistakes and dictating that they avoid mistakes is a way to silence the noise and protect the leader’s ego.
I experienced this culture first hand. In a previous role, I accidentally deleted what I thought was a draft of an email. Instead, it was an important thread. This was treated as a moral failure, and as if I was trying to cover something up and I was fired from that job. Years later I had a very similar situation as a leader and I was able to put my hand on the agent’s shoulder and say “I believe you.
I believe this was an error and you have never given me a reason to doubt that you love your team and our customers.” And yes, we still had to fix it, but the employee realized he wasn’t going to be punished. That was sort of therapeutic for me. Mistakes happen, I want to take the supportive approach as we learn and grow
We’ve likely all worked in an environment that has some elements of that cultural attitude. But also, it cannot be a free-for-all. There has to be a set of guidelines or boundaries that you set with the team to avoid chaos, correct?
Paul: Yes, I view the concept as creating boundaries instead of creating a process for everything. This helps focus on the high-notes of when things are done well: “Excellent support looks like this.” For example, create a rubric that helps you measure the outcomes. My team may not do things the way I think is best, but following the guide of the rubric, they solve the issue in a very customer-centric way. You are better off creating a “needle points north” mentality. Do not focus on everything you shouldn’t do, focus on the right way of doing things and the type of team or brand you want to be.
So this opens up the question: What is a mistake? If you have created this ethos of focusing on the right things to do, that implies there are lines not to cross.
Paul: When most people look at mistakes, including myself, the knee-jerk reaction is to make an ethical or moral judgement about the person’s thought process or that there must be some sort of a character deficiency. But not all errors are morally or ethically wrong. There are degrees of behaviors that a leader needs to separate.
For example, if you are embezzling money from your company, that is not a mistake. It is immoral and illegal. If something at the moral level is found, that is a severe penalty or even termination.
Then there is negligence, which often manifests in a sloppy, “don’t-care” attitude. Negligence is, by definition, neglect to do or perform a task or function — and we never encourage or excuse it. Negligence is a form of avoidance and may reflect a deficiency in specific ethical values — but don’t start there! In most cases, negligence reveals a lack of big-picture clarity on how actions impact the results, the team, or the customer. People can’t care about what they don’t understand.
As a leader, you can’t make people care, but it’s your responsibility to assess trends, ask the right questions, and close the clarity gap. Encourage them to reflect upon and understand the impact their actions created. If they are not learning, the person may not be the right fit for the team.
Finally, there are what I consider mistakes. Negligence happens in avoidance mode, while mistakes happen in pursuit mode. If the error occurred while eagerly serving others, you’re likely dealing with a mistake rather than negligence. Mistakes are usually a reflection of minutia; they get the big picture and care deeply, but perhaps there’s a training gap, an incomplete process, or something like that.
Remember — you’re not trying to “stop mistakes,” you’re aiming to achieve excellence — an effective leader needs to ask many questions with a presupposition of their good intentions. We all get it. Mistakes have natural consequences. For example, you told the customer the wrong thing, now there is an escalation, and your leaders need to call the customer to try and dig out of the accidental hole.
But, you shouldn’t look to create consequences to inflict pain or shame on the person. Punishment establishes fear-based leadership and entrenches error avoidance. On the contrary, create a team culture where questions are embraced as a safe path to learn, grow, and improve. I ask questions like:
- What’s the background context?
- How did you get to his point?
- Why did you do X vs. Y once you reached this point?
- Knowing what you do now, what do you plan to do differently next time?
- How would you advise a peer to navigate this if coaching someone?
This “leading with questions” approach helps them to take corrective actions themselves, with just a minor “need points north” instruction. Additionally, once I’ve asked these questions, I typically learn that I missed something along the way: Either I didn’t understand the full context, or I haven’t effectively coached my team on the given context. Both require a fresh dose of humility as I own my mistakes.
To close, I would love to understand how this culture fits into the wider ecosystem of a company. We have really focused on support, but do you see this working more effectively at a company level?
Paul: I was attracted to EveryoneSocial because of Cameron Brain’s (CEO) low ego and openness that permeated throughout the company. In cultures where the people matter most, Support often serves as a hub or glue in a company — holding a lot of things together. In sharp contrast, in companies with a poor culture, Support is the hub that gets shot at from every angle.
My point here is when the support culture is strong, in the right company, Support can help the company follow suit. It wouldn’t work in an ego-driven or knowledge-hoarding company. I started onboarding people with the idea that learning is a life-long process that doesn’t end after the first 90 days. I encourage my team to live by the ethos of “I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure it out.” Likewise, I remind my team that “mistakes are great teachers, so don’t miss out on making a few.”
To reach any level of virality at a company, the company has to be receptive to this ideology that centers on why and how we do things, not just what we do. It has been thrilling to see other leaders at EveryoneSocial adopt this same emphasis in their departmental onboarding and training.