When was the last time you celebrated failure? We are taught from a young age that failure is bad and something to fear. Because failures may bring negative repercussions, they are often hidden, ignored and downplayed. In reality, failure can be a powerful learning experience and is essential to success. When we embrace the idea of “failing forward”, we develop perseverance, confidence and a new perspective on what it takes to succeed.
Types of Failure
Not all failures are the same, but each has important lessons to teach us.
- Preventable failure happens in automated processes when a piece of equipment fails, a step is neglected or there is some other kind of malfunction. For this category, it’s important to determine how to best troubleshoot preventable failures. What safeguards are in place regarding people, equipment and environment? Make sure that all precautions have been taken to keep preventable failures from happening in the first place.
- Complex failure happens when events or situations come together in unexpected ways that cannot be foreseen.
- Intelligent failure is common in innovative projects and processes, where trial and error are simply part of the experiment.
Organizations and individuals best learn from all types of failures by having procedures in place, along with the willingness and readiness to actively detect, analyze and experiment within the workplace to catch errors quickly, learn from them, and embrace the growth and improvement that can be generated as a result.
Ideas for Action
- Depending on the type of work you do, one of the three types of failure is probably more common than the others. Consider which is most likely to happen at your workplace and think about how you might handle that type of mistake or failure should it occur.
- Come up with an example from your life for each type of failure: preventable, complex, and intelligent. Why did they happen, and how were they handled? Were the situations resolved? How did they affect you and others? Take some time to reflect on what you learned from these particular failures.
The Blame Game
If failure is essential to success, why does it feel so terrible when it’s happening? Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most cultures and organizations. Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame, and that pattern may then be reinforced in the workplace. One tremendous benefit of creating and encouraging a culture of psychological safety, in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized, is that greater innovation and individual and organizational growth can occur.
The added challenge when it comes to reframing our ideas of failure is that the experience of failing is more than emotional — it’s also cognitive. We all favor evidence that supports our existing beliefs rather than alternative explanations. We also tend to downplay our responsibility and place undue blame on external or situational factors when we fail, only to do the reverse when assessing the failures of others—a psychological trap known as fundamental attribution error. The courage to confront our own and others’ imperfections with honest reflection and a focus on improvement and learning is crucial.
Ideas for Action
- List a small number of failures you’ve experienced over recent months. Can you recall how you felt and what thoughts occurred? Make a note of these feelings and thoughts. Can you identify a pattern? Is there a repetitive loop that you repeat every time you fail at something?
- Take one of the failures from above, which initiated the repetitive loop you have identified. Write an alternative account of what happened.
The Importance of Leaders in Building a Learning Culture
Learning is inherently about failing. Leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures. They should insist on developing a clear understanding of what happened — not of “who did it” — when things go wrong. This requires consistently reporting failures, small and large, systematically analyzing them and proactively searching for opportunities to experiment. A work culture that recognizes the inevitability of failure in today’s complex organizations and is willing to catch, correct and learn from failure leads to success, employee satisfaction and loyalty. A work culture that wallows in the blame game will not.
It’s imperative for leaders to move beyond the false notion that if people aren’t blamed for failures, they’ll become “lazy” and stop putting in the effort to do their best work. In actuality, a culture that makes it safe to admit and report on failure can coexist with high standards for performance. Not all failures are created equal. Taking the time to analyze the reasons behind why a failure occurred before determining appropriate action will do far more for a team than assuming that assigning blame will lead to improvement in the long run.
One interesting study asked executives to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations were truly blameworthy; their answers were usually in single digits — around 2% to 5%. They were then asked how many failures were treated as blameworthy; they admitted that was closer to 70% to 90%. One unfortunate consequence of this scenario is that many failures go unreported, and their lessons are lost.
Ideas for Action
- Assess whether your teams offer a sense of psychological safety. Do the members of the team have confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up with ideas? Questions? Concerns? Mistakes? Are each person’s contributions valued? If you answered yes on each measure, that team possesses a strong sense of psychological safety.
- Leaders and supervisors need to actively create psychological safety because their position of power or status naturally suppresses people’s ability to speak up. This can be done by publicly acknowledging their own fallibility and emphasizing the need for each person’s contributions. They can also respond positively when people do bring things forward. From the results of the preceding exercise, choose a team with a low or mid-level of psychological safety. Develop an action plan for how the team leader or manager can improve the level of psychological safety.
Like everything in life, reframing failure becomes easier with practice. When failures inevitably occur, remind yourself and others that failure is temporary, and failure is good even if, undeniably, it feels really bad when it happens. When something goes wrong, practice saying, “Something good is happening here.” Look for the greater message of the experience and expect it to, eventually, turn out for the good. Need some additional encouragement and exercises to help you with this learning journey? Check out the curated collection of Reframing Failure elevateU resources, with short videos, audiobooks and more.