Why Chewing People Out For Mistakes is a Bad Idea

I had a conversation recently with a few friends about chewing people out for mistakes that I wanted to share.

My med school friend had been observing a surgery where the surgeon had asked a nurse to get a specific item from the storage closet for use in the surgery. When the nurse got to the closet she found that they had ran out of this particular item, so she had to go all the way across the hospital to retrieve the item. She rushed back quickly, but it still took about 10 minutes – which is an eternity during surgery when the patient is already “open”, because it increases the risk of infection.

After the nurse returned, the surgeon went off on the nurse, berating her for failing to get the item back sooner and threatening the safety of this patient – even though it was not her fault that the storage closet was not properly stocked (that job laid with some third person who was not present). The surgeon chewed out the nurse so hard that she started crying and had to leave the room for almost the entirety of the surgery – meaning the operating team had make do with one less person available to help.

Some disagreement ensues

I felt that the story really underlined the reputation that surgeons have for being assholes and that his behavior was destructive and uncalled for. Surprisingly, both my trader friend and engineering manager disagreed. Their opinion was that the nurse (who was not a newbie by any measure) should have double checked all the supplies prior to the surgery and by getting chewed out, she’d learn her lesson and never let this happen again. Thus, even though the surgeon brought the nurse to tears and caused her to be ineffective for the rest of the surgery, he ultimately did the right thing in terms of maximizing patient care in the long term.

I strongly disagreed with their assessment and spent some time unsuccessfully trying to explain why.

I was so distressed by this conversation that it’s still on my mind now and I decided to write this post. So here are the 4 reasons I feel that yelling, belittling, insulting, threatening, and otherwise chewing someone out for a mistake is a really bad idea.

1. Stress inhibits initiative/creativity and encourages mindless obedience

The number one issue I have with this situation is that the nurse wasn’t even in charge of stocking the storage closet. That was someone else’s job. The surgeon wanted the nurse to take extra initiative and double check the closet – which is a great thing to encourage.

But you can’t berate some into taking initiative.

Sure, they might double check next time, but in general, when you are afraid of making mistakes, you are unlikely to take initiative to try new things. This nurse is less likely to go above and beyond the call of duty – not more. As a data point: it’s been shown that innovation efforts struggle after a firm announces restructuring efforts (a known stressor).

If you want your people to take initiative, putting them under a ton of stress for “screwing up” is not going to work.

2. When you lose control, you lose respect

When you chew someone out – it is often because you are pissed off and unleash your anger on anyone who is involved in the situation (and sometimes even unrelated people!) When you lose control of your emotions as the leader or most senior person on the team – you lose the respect of your team. You lose credibility and you lose influence.

How are you supposed to have the discipline to make the tough-but-important calls when you can’t even discipline your own emotion?

If you’re upset, it says much more about your character if you can stay calm and collected when discussing then incident – which will earn the respect of your team, making them more likely to follow your directions in the future.

3. You breed resentment which leads to turnover & passive aggressive behavior

Besides inhibiting creativity, chewing people out and making them feel bad leads to resentment, which leads to a host of negative consequences. When you resent someone, you tend to resist helping them and look for little ways to screw them. I’m sure you’ve all seen this sort of passive-agressive behavior play out in your home or work. It is toxic – you don’t want that in your workplace.

Additionally, resentment leads to people quitting. This nurse had been working at the hospital for many years – she was no dummy and had a wealth of valuable experience that can make a huge difference for patients in many ways. But if she left due to resentment or just plain burn out, that is a net negative for the hospital and for patient care.

4. You don’t get to the bottom of the problem

When you yell at someone for making a mistake and simply tell them to “never let this happen again” you are demonstrating a lack of intellectual curiosity. Most problems don’t have simple solutions – or else they would have been solved already. You need to get to the root cause of the problem.

Instead of chewing people out, a better approach might be to use the 5 Whys – a technique developed by the founder of Toyota. As the architect of the Toyota Production System describes it:

“the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach . . . by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”

Chewing people out assumes that the problem lies with their intelligence or motivation – and if that’s really the issue – you have a bigger problem on your hands.

I guess now I have to write a post about the right way to deal with mistakes or problems with people – that will come in time but in general, two good tips would be: ask a lot of questions and work hard to set clear and agreed upon expectations.

Chewing people out doesn’t work and it’s unprofessional. So don’t do it.

UPDATE – A med school friend of mine has written his thoughts on the surgeon’s behavior: Further Thoughts on Chewing People Out

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