Part of the training process is explaining what not to do. If you say, “Don’t do X,” people may tune it out. But if you say, “John did X and then the furnace blew up!”—well, people tend to remember that.

It’s easy to come up with stories that give positive examples, but sometimes a negative example can be an even more effective training tool. It can be a tricky proposition, though: Do you want to risk embarrassing your employee who made the mistake? Here are some tips for how to use negative stories in training without shaming a valued team member.

1. Consider Your Purpose

If your goal is just to share a funny or interesting story, it’s not really a training tool: It’s just gossip. If you don’t have a specific training objective in mind, telling a story that could potentially embarrass a good employee isn’t worth it.

2. Ask Permission

As a general rule, you should get permission before sharing a story about someone else. Usually people are amenable to sharing their mistakes if they have been treated well in the past (and if they’ve seen you treat others who made mistakes well). If your tone is, “Boy, that was a stupid thing to do,” people won’t want to share their mistakes. But if the tone is, “We’ve all done this and here’s a situation where it went wrong, so let’s all learn from it,” then people will likely be more willing to share.

3. Let People Tell Their Own Stories

When sharing a negative story, let people speak for themselves. That shifts the dynamic from pointing out a person’s goof to allowing him to invite others to learn from his mistake. When we get to control our own narrative, the experience can be a positive one. It doesn’t feel like shaming or gossip when we choose to share our own mistakes.

Of course, if someone is uncomfortable sharing their story with the team, don’t force him to discuss it. This should be a learning opportunity, not a punishment.

4. Follow Through to the Fix

If you just say, “Jane did X and it went badly, so don’t do X,” you’re only telling part of the story, one which casts it in a negative light. But if you describe how Jane repaired the situation after it went awry, and the steps she has personally implemented to ensure it doesn’t happen again, the story is about the solution, not the problem.

5. Share the Positive

Yes, we’re talking about using mistakes as training opportunities, but if you only focus on negative experiences, people will feel training sessions are simply an opportunity to complain about things they are doing wrong. Make sure you also bring up new, innovative and effective ideas. Give the person who developed a positive idea the chance to present her own story, just as you would in a negative situation.

We tend to remember stories more easily than straight facts, so anecdotes can be perfect training vehicles. Just make sure you do it respectfully—that way, your whole team will benefit from both failures and successes.

ABOUT Suzanne Lucas

Avatar photoSuzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She now writes about Human Resources and Business for a number of different publications.