I have long found that if you are running a professional services or creative business, and aspire to high levels of professionalism, then morale is your secret weapon.

With high morale, people will work night and day to get things done; with low morale they can’t be bothered to get in on time. With high morale, people will go that extra mile to be as professional as possible; with low morale they will tolerate mediocrity.

Most CEO’s I have encountered encourage morale through a mixture of relentless optimism and enthusiasm, along with the occasional ticking off when necessary.

But what’s the best way to deal with stupid mistakes, misfortune or not sticking to agreed standards (ie unprofessionalism), as they are all different manifestations of ‘wrong’?

Well the first thing to say is that you shouldn’t let these pass without consequence, as this erodes morale – and professionalism – very fast. What’s the point of pulling an all-nighter to get that proposal done, to the highest possible standards, when someone else sends out a document that’s both off target and riddled with spelling mistakes?

The second thing to say is that shouting, routinely, doesn’t generally work because after a while, people stop listening. 

And as for those businesses where the culture is ‘the beatings will continue until morale improves’, where every mistake is jumped on? Well, these are utterly toxic environments, whose culture sows the seeds of their own destruction, as talented folk move to better run competitors.

Anyway, there’s something much more potent that holds people to high standards  – that is people feeling ashamed of falling short (and the flip side; pride in achievement). A sense of personal shame at unprofessional work is a powerful, personal incentive not to repeat it; far more enduring than any rebuke.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not for a second advocating that you humiliate people or reduce them to tears, make a public display of penalising them, or anything like that.  That’s bullying, immoral, and doesn’t work. In fact, you cannot ‘impose’ shame on individuals; it is something they genuinely have to feel from within.

What I am suggesting is that your business should be one where professionalism becomes part of the firm’s DNA, and that pride and, if it comes to it, shame are naturally generated through meeting or missing your high standards. In this environment, a low key observation that you have been disappointed by substandard performance can be galvanising.

To get there requires, first and foremost, that colleagues have to understand the importance of their work, the importance of what your company stands for, the importance of the standards you set. That they, and what they do, matter a great deal. 

And that everyone in your company – starting with you – lives up to those high standards, with consequences for meeting or missing them. 

It takes time, but If you work hard at setting and holding yourself and others to the highest standards (and, in particular, calling out examples of high standards being met, especially in adversity; demonstrating that a route to promotion is via professionalism), then truly great things can happen.

Next on my list is the “there but for the grace of God” mistake. A whopper, that costs the business pride or money or both, but which is either out of character for the individual concerned, or is the sort or error that’s partly due to capricious circumstance.

This is a special one, because everyone in the business will know about it, and they are all probably holding their breath to see what the result will be, for the poor unfortunate miscreant.

As with all responses, you have to keep a sense of proportion and think about the individual involved, and the effect on the wider community of what you decide to do.

One approach that can be enormously effective is to use humour. In one high-performing PR business where I worked, we had the Foot-In-Mouth Award (an old shoe, painted gold and stuck to a plinth) which was handed out, and received, with good humour, to someone who had really badly messed up an important journalist interview. It showed the recipient, and everyone else, that you knew about the matter; that you were calling it out; that making mistakes was not good, but was not a death sentence.

But you should fire people (after consulting lawyers) if they fail to meet your standards, through dishonesty, serial incompetence or the abuse of others (bosses belittling their subordinates, etc). Professional businesses tolerate human error, but not deceit, ineptitude or misuse.

In short, there are a variety of ways of dealing with ‘wrong’ but the self-policing one through a sense of personal pride – and shame – is enormously powerful. It’s a long road…as always, there’s much to do and time is short, so good luck and get cracking.