The fear of failure is real. As humans, we fear failure from an early age and in many settings, be it on the ball field or at the workplace. Failure stings and often elicits feelings of humiliation and shame. But what if we told you failure is in fact a good thing? Or that it’s one of the only things that can encourage true growth? Yes, we’ve all heard of the trendy new term “growth mindset” which infers that without failure, we have no growth. Yet, while your HR department and leadership team might say it in company meetings, we must actually believe it, because while “success may increase confidence, [it] rarely, if ever, builds wisdom. Only failure can do that, and only if we let it” (Forbes).
Turn Failure into Wisdom
Allowing failure to build wisdom is the trick. Too often, because of either pride or embarrassment, we humans want to gloss over failures as quickly as possible. Sometimes, we look for opportunities to place blame on something – or worse – on someone. As shared by Amy Edmondson for HBR, “Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures. Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame. That is why so few organizations have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized.” The “blame game” is a toxic trait of employees and managers alike, and organizations who do not embrace failure will experience the negative effects of this toxicity.
In the workplace, it’s critical to accept failure as a possibility, as well as to do the work to learn from that failure truly. This will not only encourage innovation, but it will reduce the fear of “owning up” to a failure or mistake. Organizations must encourage the pursuit of accountability, and in doing so, celebrate those who accept accountability and truly learn from their mistakes. Edmonson writes that leaders “should insist that their organizations develop a clear understanding of what happened—not of “who did it”—when things go wrong.”
A failure is an important learning opportunity for organizations, and without ownership of a failure, those benefits will rarely be reaped. Accept failure as a fact of doing important work, and then develop processes for collaboratively learning from those failures. When employees realize that failure is simply part of the work, they will feel safer taking more calculated risks that may benefit the organization and willingly accepting responsibility when things don’t go as planned.
Now, that’s not to say organizations should encourage reckless behavior. Let’s be honest: organizations want success more than they want failure. However, more often than not, success only comes after failure (and sometimes a lot of it! It’s said to have taken Thomas Edison 10,000 attempts to master the invention of the lightbulb). So, find opportunities to collaborate on new and exciting work. Build a culture of awareness – one that encourages thoughtful, cooperative, and calculated risks infused with empathy, accountability, and ownership. Own the failures as you would own the wins: when you fail together, you win together.
Learning to accept and embrace failure is the start of a psychological safety journey for organizations. This is arguably one of the most critical journeys on which an organization can embark. It is the foundation of creating an innovative, communicative, and accountable work environment where toxicity is not tolerated and teamwork is prioritized.
Is your organization ready to think big, fail gracefully, and innovate fearlessly? Bring your team on a psychological safety journey co-created with Amy Edmondson today!