The Missing Ingredient with Failure: Leader Acceptance

Guest: David Van Rooy Audacious Ideas, Culture, HR, HR (& Life!) Advice, Leadership, Learning and Development

The idea that failure is a good thing has become a vogue topic of late. The hope that you can always “fail forward” or find growth from failure is both appealing and comforting. There are enough articles on this topic that it would be easy to jump to the false conclusion that failure is always good, so long as you can learn from it.

The problem with this logic, though, is that it is based entirely on an individual perspective. To really understand and appreciate failure, this must be turned on its head and also viewed from another lens: the organizational perspective. Learning and growing from failure is immensely more difficult without leaders and organizational cultures that embrace it. The conditions that allow people to grow from failure increase in tandem with an organizations acceptance of it.

Failure often comes out of taking strategic risks. These gambles can have a great return, but also great downside. Most people would understandably be less apt to attempt monumental leaps forward if failure was associated with losing your job. This post is not about what to do when failure happens – it’s about how conditions can be created where failure can be viewed as an asset instead of a finger pointing liability.

Is your organizational culture holding back possibilities that are pent up with your employees and waiting to be unleashed? As a leader, ask yourself the questions below to see if you are fostering a workplace that encourages the right type of risk:

  • Do you immediately get angry or look to lay blame when something goes wrong? If so, slow down. Take a moment to ask what went wrong and why before jumping to judgment.
  • Do you let employees know that you want them to reach their maximum potential? Maximum potential requires setting big goals and being willing to occasionally fall short.
  • Have you made it clear that you will not only accept, but even embrace failure when it’s done right?
  • Have you ever embraced failure and held it up as a positive up as an example? In addition to what was learned from the failure, also share with others what went right.

If you want to mitigate failure or are thinking about taking a risk at work where failure could result, consider the following before proceeding:

  • The no brainer – make sure it is not illegal or unethical.
  • Review basic parameters – discuss what is acceptable and non-acceptable risk with your boss or business partners.
  • No shortcuts – too many failures result from lack of preparation or taking the easy way. Consider all angles and options before moving forward. Failure is more acceptable as long as your plan is sound and you put forth your full effort.
  • Remember the little things – failure is viewed more favorably when it is a non-frequent event. If you mess up little things often, you will find that there is considerably less tolerance for a larger failure.
  • Plan B – ensure that you will be able to identify what went wrong if your plan A fails; this will enable you to move forward with a great chance of success with Plan B.

Few success stories got that way without any failure along the way. But in each of these situations the person was given another chance. Be sure you are doing what you can to support failures missing ingredient.