By Ed McLaughlin and Wyn Lydecker

In a high-pressure environment like a startup, emotions and tempers can run very high. With the best of intentions, someone is likely to engage in a behavior or course that isn’t what you wanted for your company. The temptation may be to smack down the action down and the person – you don’t have time for that! While doing so might fix the immediate problem, it can have negative consequences in the long run. How can you address the behavior while still keeping dialogue open and constructive?

I propose a three stage response:

1. Acknowledge the good intention behind the behavior

This may be the hardest step, because you have to step outside your feelings of dismay and even anger at what has happened. You have to take an objective stance and figure out if the person made simply made a mistake. You should try to understand what positive motivation – if any – drove him (or her) to the action he took. The offending party knows he’s messed up, and he is probably desperate to have you see the situation from his perspective.

It’s important to make the person responsible feel like you know he had good intentions, so articulate that when you voice the problem, too: “I know this project was really important to you, and you wanted it to succeed.” Alternatively, you can ask the person why they took – or did not take – the action in the first place. The explanation may help you comprehend why the snafu happened.

2. Set the expectations

This is where you express the boundaries that were violated. This is an opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding that caused the offender to veer off-course. Perhaps he was prioritizing metrics above merit, or was unaware of how his efforts affected a colleague. Tell him, in such a way that shows you understand his lack of knowledge or misinterpretation as reasonable. There’s no advantage in making him feel stupid for making a mistake. Give the person a chance to apologize and make amends.

Your response at this point could sound something like this, combining your acknowledgment and expectation: “I know this project was really important to you and you wanted it to succeed, but you need to operate within the spirit of our mission.” If you can clear the air and give guidance for how to act in the future, then he will be able to behave appropriately and be more likely to volunteer good ideas in future.

3. Give some choices

Now that you’ve addressed the past action and reinforced the values of your startup, it’s time to look to the future. This is a chance to show the offender that you still have faith in his ability to do good work, even though he went a little off the ranch.

Give him the opportunity to suggest a solution to resolve the issue he’s created. If he has none, or if you do not agree with the solution, offer guidance for the proper recourse.  After all, you are the business owner, and you understand your vision for your business better than anyone else. The important thing is to let him own his mistake and his resolution. Then demonstrate confidence in his autonomy and ability to do right going forward. Make sure the person know you value his other contributions.

This step secures a plan to move forward and accountability for the actions to follow, while allowing your employee to know he is a valuable part of your team. (The book “The One Minute Manager” has some excellent, simple advice along these lines.)

Let the person know that the most important action he can take in the future is to own up to mistake as soon as he makes it, apologize quickly, and make amends. In fact, make sure everyone working for you understands that they are to take these three steps if they find they have made a mistake.

The approach we’ve outlined to resolve an error works on three levels: it addresses the actual problem, enables the person responsible to fix the problem, and sets up expectations for the future. Without shutting down the lines of communication, you can correct wrong behavior and move forward as an organization.

Where can you use this strategy in your business? Are there others you find effective? Let us know in the comments!

Ed McLaughlin is currently co-writing the book “The Purpose Is Profit: Secrets of a Successful Entrepreneur from Startup to Exit” with Wyn Lydecker and Paul McLaughlin.

Copyright © 2014 by Ed McLaughlin All rights reserved.