When something bad happens to someone (firing, demotion, bad review, big failure), it’s natural for managers to ask that person “what did you learn?“*
Unfortunately the answer is rarely what a manager wants to hear, and it’s also largely useless.**
Asking the question phrases it as the employee’s problem, while theory and experience both tell us that it’s far more often the management that is at primary fault (work environment, culture, all sorts of common cause variation. It is not at all useful to ask the employee “what did you learn?” unless the goal of the question is a) pure personal curiousity, as when family/friends/coworkers ask, or b) to get the employee’s take on how to improve the system so these things don’t happen.
Are we masters of our own destiny? I find thinking so is a useful way to behave personally, but a naive or dishonest way to lead and manage. If you believe that an employee is the primary driver of their behavior, rather than the system he or she works in, then you’re probably relying on destiny to create a successful company. Good luck! You may also consider playing the lottery.***
Unless you can reliably improve and grow the system and culture, you are relying on luck, timing, and personal attributes to create a successful organization. That’s fine, but very few managers would admit to wanting such a company. An event that disrupts or upsets an employee is a great opportunity to learn, so here are some better questions to ask your employee when it happens. (for clarity, I will use “we” for management and “you” for employee)
Better questions to ask your employee
What can we learn from this? I assume we think highly of our employee (we hired them****, or at least haven’t fired them before this). They probably have the best view of what went right and wrong. And if not the best view, then at least a unique one worth hearing. We have as much to learn as they do. After all, we- the manager, employee, and probably many other connected people- failed.
What do you think caused this? Your employee fell victim to the system. The difficult part is figuring out what parts of the system were the aggressors. Remember, even if this were truly their fault, our organization can’t grow from finding the employee at fault, so it behooves us to find something we can learn from.
Were you surprised? When people take risks, they expect to lose part of the time. The employee’s failure may not be due to a mistake, but a calculated risk that didn’t work out. This fundamentally changes what the “learning” is about. Let’s not presume bad outcomes were due to a lack of understanding or miscalculation on the part of the employee, but rather assume bad outcomes are due to a shortcoming in our management and the system.
Why were we surprised at the outcome? Why didn’t we see this coming? If we did see it coming, why didn’t we act earlier? Maybe your employee can help you learn to see this happening earlier next time, so you can do something about it. Or maybe you were warned about it, but saw what you wanted to see, and your employee can help you realize that.
What would “success” have looked like? Some situations are “unwinnable.” There war is lost, but the employee still believes there is hope. Find out what they were fighting for. You can make sure others that are fighting for the same cause don’t meet the same fate, either because you fix the issue, or do a better job explaining it.
There are many other good questions that should be asked. Big “failures” are great opportunities to learn, so let the discussion flow. You won’t learn and grow as an organization if your default response is to blame the employee. Every time someone gets a bad review, is fired, quits, or royally messes up, we must use that opportunity to improve as an organization.
*: I will state so there’s no confusion: I’m not talking about the words themselves. I’m talking about the idea that you are asking the employee what they learned as the primary way to involve them in the retrospection of “their” significant failure.
**: Usually what the employee probably thinks is you’re an asshole, the culture is broken, and the organization is fucked. So I spend this article focusing on why the question is useless.
***: I don’t worry about offending people here, because no one ever thinks they’re a bad manager. And you certainly aren’t!
****: I use ‘they’ or ‘their’ instead of “he or she” or “s/he” or whatever. I’m not sure what is in vogue today.