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Personal development: what is ‘good failure’ and how can employers promote it?

The path to success seldom runs smoothly, so why are modern organisations so afraid of failure? In order to be truly innovative, we need to give our people space to fail occasionally. 

20th Nov 2019
Goodhabitz
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illustration depicting a business person failing to reach a target
iStock/wenmei Zhou

We live in a ‘perfect world’. We’re expected to have perfect lives, homes, careers, relationships, children – the list is endless. There’s no room for errors (or losers) and that’s incredibly stressful. Everything has to be just perfect these days and admitting anything less is taboo.

It’s funny how the rise in our society’s expectations of perfection mirrors the rise in mental health issues. It’s neither possible nor healthy to strive for perfection all the time and yet that’s what people increasingly expect. How many people think they need to be right first time? Who wants failure? We all do our best to avoid mistakes at all costs.

The fact is though, without some form of failure, there is no success. Without mistakes, we can’t learn, and yet society still has such a negative attitude towards failure at any level. This needs to change if people are to continue learning and growing as individuals, and employers have a role in helping to facilitate ‘good failure’ inside their organisations.

As leading organisational psychologists have shown, not talking about mistakes is counterproductive, because if a mistake goes unreported, it means a co-worker will miss the chance to avoid making it too.

We learn the most from our negative experiences - they enrich our lives. As Nietsche said, “that which doesn’t kill me will make me stronger”.

Some of the world’s most successful companies share a common understanding of why it’s so good to fail and they actively encourage employees to ‘go for it’ with good failure.

At Google, employees are encouraged to spend time working on ‘pet projects’ – even though 80% of them fail – simply to foster the personal growth that this produces. The company even has a mantra for it: ‘never fail to fail’. That seems highly incongruous for a company that’s so incredibly successful.

As business owners and employers, we say we want to encourage innovation and creativity, so we should be helping our workforces to become better at failing. For people to learn to feel comfortable with errors, they need help to understand what they’re frightened of in the first place.

Why do people avoid failure?

Most people who are frightened of failing will describe themselves as ‘perfectionists’, but ‘protectionists’ is probably a better name for them. They strive for perfection because they want to avoid disapproval, criticism and any embarrassment that comes with it.

Other people who strive for perfection may do so because they don’t understand that ‘good enough’ is just what it means. They haven’t appreciated that when striving to be the best, there is a point after which the relationship between perfection and effectiveness starts to decline and the results will suffer. Nothing is ‘good enough’ and it becomes de-motivating, so projects stall.

Josh Bersin talks about ‘learning in the course of work’ and this idea needs to be expanded to include mistakes, through error management.

Instead, taking a more iterative approach, producing ‘good enough’ and then analysing how it could be further improved, will result in a far better outcome than constantly delaying the final output until it is ‘perfect’.

Perhaps in all the years that organisations have been striving to ‘be the best’ and excel, they have somehow created working environments where their employees don’t understand what it means to be ‘good enough’ and this is stifling innovation. Having high standards is essential, but it could also be inhibiting the potential for growth.

As leading organisational psychologists have shown, not talking about mistakes is counterproductive, because if a mistake goes unreported, it means a co-worker will miss the chance to avoid making it too.

How can business owners help line management to avoid a blame culture?

Many employees talk about their workplaces having a ‘blame culture’. It’s the epitome of the protectionism that comes with perfectionism and is highly toxic to innovation. Here’s how to support line managers to banish blame, with simple cultural changes to avoid it.

  • Support line managers with initiatives that stretch their team members and provide opportunities for growth. This might not be suitable for every employee, but many will welcome the chance to leave their comfort zones in a supportive environment. The key to the effectiveness of these initiatives lies in making it the norm to take on something challenging and not be ‘punished’ if it all goes wrong. At the outset, line managers and team members should evaluate likely outcomes and obstacles and track this throughout the project to maximise learning opportunities.
     
  • Reward people for their successes but also promote risk taking and innovation. One good way to do this is with an innovation award programme. Rather than focus only on commercial success stories, include a category for risk taking and the depth of lessons learned. It’s a powerful way of signalling to the organisation that risk-taking is acceptable and that in fact, failure will be rewarded. If every line manager is supporting stretch projects, there will be plenty of potential entries.
     
  • Management at all levels need to lead by example, owning up to making mistakes and always admitting when they were wrong or made an error. Humility is one of the most important aspects of good leadership today. Actively use error management to identify causes of a mistake rather than finger pointing at the person that caused it. To develop a culture where error management becomes the norm, hold review meetings in an open, judgement free forum, where people can openly discuss projects and what could be improved upon. This will help to create a strong feeling of cohesion across the organisation and encourage openness and learning.

Josh Bersin talks about ‘learning in the course of work’ and this idea needs to be expanded to include mistakes, through error management. Companies are slowly coming around to the idea of failures being a good thing. Many start-ups promote a ‘fail fast’ culture in which people don’t dwell on mistakes and ‘blunder lunches’ provide a relaxed forum to share ‘f*** ups’ with others.

With an open culture, companies can encourage more risk taking and celebrate both the successes they bring and even more important lessons to be learned from the inevitable failures.  

Interested in this topic? Read Is your team suffering from innovation stress?

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