Failure Is an Option: A Thriving Company’s Workplace Culture Mantra
By all accounts, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was a highly successful entrepreneur. Many might assume his achievements and those of his team resulted from a series of home runs. But he considered mistakes an invaluable part of his professional trajectory: “In my experience, each failure contains the seeds of success—if you are willing to learn from it.”
Like other innovative and dynamic leaders, Allen didn’t equate failure with defeat or something that would tarnish one’s efforts. He saw mistakes as learning opportunities and catalysts for growth as long as people have the right mindset. But many find it hard to see the good side of failure and so don’t take advantage of what it can offer.
The Taboo of Failure in the Workplace
Business leaders, and consequently their staff, often view failures and mistakes through a negative lens. Leadership expert Marshall Stanton listed some of the psychological and emotional barriers affecting working people’s perspectives in a recent article for LinkedIn.
- Fear of failure
Many people are afraid of making mistakes because they’ve had negative experiences from past failures that rocked their confidence. As a result, they’re hesitant to take chances and experiment with new ideas.
- Risk aversion
Some people and organizations view failures or mistakes as a sign of weakness or poor performance. Consequently, they don’t risk trying anything new and cling to the status quo.
Ego often prevents people from putting themselves in a position where they might make a mistake. They see failure as something that would embarrass them and reflect poorly on their abilities and reputation.
- Lack of trust
In a blame-oriented workplace, the absence of trust among employees prevents people from sharing their mistakes and allowing everyone to learn from them. They’re afraid their mistakes will be used against them.
Failure becomes a scarlet letter in companies that consider it a sign of incompetence. Learning opportunities are lost in organizations where people worry about being labeled a “screw-up.”
There’s also the undeniable fact that a failure can potentially harm a career or a company. But periodic failures are inevitable. Everyone has them—how we react to them makes all the difference. Organizations and their team members can choose to be empowered or diminished by mistakes.
The Price of Burying Failure
Some business leaders worry that they’ll create an “anything goes” workplace if they encourage their employees to embrace failure. But they’ll push people to hide failure and point fingers if they routinely level blame on those who make mistakes.
Resisting the inclination to blame is a tough hurdle because, as leadership development consultant Michael Timms writes in Harvard Business Review, “We are all naturally wired to blame other people or circumstances when things go wrong.” However, doing so is counterproductive, and he reflects that leaders who engage in blaming behavior lead their teams down a negative spiral. He reflects:
“Our brains interpret blame the same way they interpret a physical attack. When we’re blamed, our prefrontal cortices effectively shut down and direct all our energy to defending ourselves, which, ironically, sabotages our ability to solve the problem for which we are being blamed.”
Timms argues that blaming destroys accountability, a crucial characteristic organizations need to thrive. Mistakes can snowball when people cover them up, leading to more significant problems that cause irreversible damage. In addition, a blame-filled workplace creates a toxic culture that torpedoes morale and increases turnover.
CultureWise Vice President Bill Kaiser likes to relay a story he heard while rolling out a client’s culture initiative. He was working with the group about practicing blameless problem-solving, a behavior that stresses learning from mistakes instead of wasting time pointing fingers. When he asked people to share their perspectives, one of the employees said:
“I grew up in a house where individuality, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking were not only encouraged but expected. Whether it was schoolwork, music, or sports, my father always reminded me that it was OK to fail. He said F.A.I.L. stood for: First Attempt In Learning.”
This employee’s father taught him that what he discovered from mistakes would push him to be stronger and better. Many successful executives concur and activate this mindset in their companies. They steer their team away from negative perceptions about failure and instead build a healthy attitude about it in their workplace culture.
As Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes wrote in Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation,
“Failure-tolerant leaders push people to see beyond simplistic, traditional definitions of failure. They know that as long as someone views failure as the opposite of success rather than its complement, that person will never be able to take the risks necessary for innovation.”
And without the willingness to innovate, companies can’t continue to compete in the rapidly evolving business arena.
The Right Approach Toward Failure at Work
Marshall Stanton offers several suggestions for leaders who want to harness the power of learning from failure in their organizations and make it part of their culture.
- Create a culture of learning
Leaders can develop an environment where people are encouraged to learn by thoughtfully trying different approaches and developing new ideas. They need to give their people permission and leeway to experiment. Tactics can include promoting behaviors like taking intelligent risks and striving for continuous improvement.
- Encourage open communication
One of the advantages of employees openly sharing mistakes is that their coworkers can benefit from the information, so the whole organization moves forward. Open communication is only possible when leaders create a safe space to talk constructively about failures. Employees at all levels shouldn’t fear retribution for admitting mistakes or see any advantage in hiding them.
- Providing support and resources
Leaders can go further to endorse a learning atmosphere by giving employees tools and opportunities to experiment and learn from failure. These can include training and development options and establishing a mentorship program.
- Recognizing and rewarding failure
Companies are increasingly seeing the value of recognizing employees for their achievements. But they should also acknowledge and applaud people and teams for innovative ideas that fail and communicate their efforts’ value in pushing everyone to a higher level.
- Leading by example
If leaders don’t share their failures and what they gained from them, their employees are unlikely to do it either. By opening up to their staff about their missteps, they demonstrate that everyone makes mistakes, show self-confidence, and send a much more powerful message than just telling people to engage in this behavior.
Leaders who develop a culture where failure is seen as a productive means of improvement protect and energize their organizations. Doing so can lead to breakthrough products and services and new, more efficient business models. And as Stanton points out, making it safe to fail and learn from mistakes strengthens employee engagement.
“An experimentation culture can foster a more efficient and productive workforce. When employees are encouraged to take risks and propose new ideas, they become more engaged and invested in their work. This can lead to increased creativity, motivation, and job satisfaction, which can translate into improved performance and productivity.”
Cultivating a culture where failure is an option isn’t the same as creating a workplace where mistakes don’t matter. It’s up to leaders to instill a growth mindset in their employees and coach them to “fail forward” so they can turn missteps into progress.