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Why Leaders Need To Rethink Failure Being A Bad Thing

Picture this - your team is gathered for the weekly progress update. There are positive reports from everyone, but suddenly from the back of the room someone drops an F-Bomb in their rundown. After gasps have fallen silent, everyone looks to you - their leader - to see your reaction. Will you make an example of them or will you let it slide? All too often in corporate land the F-Bomb no one wants to drop is not the one you think, but rather the word 'Failure'.
In this post COVID world, job security is something we can no longer take for granted. Most of us are feeling the pressure to deliver, and where possible exceed expectations in our assignments. While, in the past, organisations often created teams of bright-minded people committed to identifying opportunities for innovation, now with falling revenues, these dedicated thought leaders are being disbanded. However, with our corporate existence under threat, now is the time we should be encouraging innovation within our organisations. Why Leaders Need To Rethink Failure Being A Bad Thing

With innovation inevitably comes failure because you are stepping into unknown and untested territory. In laboratories, it is common for scientists to spend years failing as they pursue their research. However, each setback tells a story - not only does it eliminate possibilities, it may reveal a clue to where the solution lies. A failure is only truly a failure if we don't analyse and identify our learnings.

Our fear of failure

To reach this state where we are willing to fail means overcoming one of our most debilitating and costly fears. The fear is not about the failure itself, but rather the consequences of the failure for our self-esteem, self-worth and ultimately the approval of those who matter to us. In the business world of start-ups, many investors won't invest in a company's founders unless they've experienced a couple of failures with previous ventures. They believe that these 'failures' make founders more resilient and prepare them for the hard work that needs to be done by learning from the inevitable setbacks and being able to push on.

Destructive failure culture

As leaders, if we choose to punish failure, we are communicating to our people to avoid failure and thereby not learn. Additionally, employees may be too scared to communicate their failures when they do occur. This environment can breed a lack of innovation and encourage systemic coverups, which in turn can be destructive for staff satisfaction and engagement, employee retention and ultimately our performance. This autocratic approach to leadership will lead to these failures infecting our business and overall performance. While public crucifixions may help you deal with your disappointment or frustrations, it will leave a lingering reluctance within your team to pursue innovation or show initiative in the future.

Humans by their very nature are innovative beings, and as leaders, we can have a huge influence over the culture for managing failure within our team. Ultimately, it is up to us as to whether we create a positive or negative culture for how we leverage failure.

Constructive failure culture

A more constructive approach is to establish a culture where failure becomes a learning opportunity for your team and the business as a whole. It doesn't matter whether the failure is one of process or the result of trying something new - both end up providing a test for your leadership. A constructive failure culture is not about accepting subpar performance from team members but rather helping them understand what failed and making them responsible for putting in place strategies to avoid making the same mistake again and leveraging opportunities the failure uncovered.

Some steps to managing failures in a constructive culture are:
  • Don't lose sight of the end goal, failures can ultimately lead us to uncover even larger pots of gold
  • Accept that failure is inevitable, and embed strategies that encourage using failures as learning opportunities for you and your team members
  • Undertake positive analysis of failures and try to avoid the blame game that comes with destructive failures 
  • Establish a culture where team members feel safe accepting responsibility for failures and engage in developing solutions for future successes
  • Minimise long-term impacts by encouraging communication of failures when early indicators appear, avoid coverups
Your role as a leader is to develop team members and encourage them to perform to their full potential. Just like a sports coach, your success is dependent on how well you help your team learn from their failures. Success comes from them learning and adjusting their performance accordingly, then applying these lessons on the field when the pressure is on. If you don't encourage your team to learn from their failures, then dropping the F-Bomb could eventually devastate your team. Remember where possible fail small, fail fast, fail cheap and don't make the same mistake twice.

Author Credits

Gary Waldon is a business transformation specialist who works with people at all levels from CEOs, business leaders and professional athletes through to teachers and retirees to help them take back control of the things that matter to them. Find out more at https://www.linkedin.com/in/gary-waldon-aa000819/

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