Failure in the workplace can take many forms. It could be a product or feature, a model, a workflow or process, a new hire, or an entire strategic initiative. It can of course be human error. Whichever type of failure it is, it is widely considered that failure is bad.
Many organisations have invested thousands of dollars and countless hours in trying to unearth positive outcomes from failures. Managers have been trained. Mantras handed out and organisational change applied from the top down. And yet teams that have cultivated a positive and supportive culture around failures are rare.
In most organisations, team members will do everything and anything in their power to avoid owning up to failure in the workplace.
Thanks to many years of conditioning and probably the occasional witness to a spectacular failure, we are scared to fail. We avoid it, hide it, deflect it – anything that will keep failure as far away from us as possible, even thought failures are not always equal.
“Failure is not always bad. In organisational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good.” (hbr.org – Strategies for Learning from Failure)
Recently I’ve been exploring the concept of failure and how it is perceived in the workplace. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the internal workings of many organisations and the ones who are achieving the most, are the teams that have cultivated a safe and supportive culture to allow members to share their failures openly.
“When we avoid discussing failures, we deprive both ourselves and our colleagues of the lessons we’ve learned from them.” (hbr.org – The power of positive failure)
Before we challenge the current failure perception, we first need to untangle some terms.
Failure vs Fault
“Children early very early on that admitting failure means taking the blame.” (hbr.org – The power of positive failure)
If, as children, we learn to associate Failure and Fault as the same – how can we take steps to challenge this belief pattern?
Ultimately it comes down to workplace culture.
By creating a workplace culture that is safe and accepting and does not name and shame in a negative way will provide an opportunity for team members to challenge their own failure beliefs.
“A failure, resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generations valuable information may actually be praiseworthy.” (hbr.org)
Pointing the finger at another, or casting blame, is a slippery slope and one that is neither productive or beneficial to the organisation – and yet it is often the go-to response for most team members.
Here is an example:
A team member works back to finish a report that is due the next day. The report includes a spreadsheet that requires multiple complex calculations. The team member is fatigued and unknowingly adds an incorrect number to the report but does not realise. The report is sent to his manager who reads it the next day ahead of his meeting which includes a presentation on the key outcomes of the report.
Who is to blame?
Perhaps the worker – however he was tired and working overtime to complete the report, so you could in fact blame the manager who assigned the task knowing the team member was already busy.
Either way – casting blame in this situation has no benefit. The failure to catch the numbers before could in fact be an opportunity to discuss deadlines, review timelines, or add a step to the workflow that mitigates against these errors occuring. This would be a benefit to the company in the longer term as it is preventing the errors occuring again.
For organisations and their teams to take a more positive approach to failure, we need to encourage the sharing of failure stories and make use of the opportunities failures provide by examining lessons learned.
Don’t brush a failure under the rug or park it for next months review.
As soon as is appropriate, discuss openly and without blame. Review the scenario and look for the opportunities for learning and growth in this situation.
If you are struggling to encourage your team to step away from a negative mindset around failing, here are some questions to prompt some reflection:
- What is the biggest take away from this situation?
- What needs to change to prevent this failure repeating?
- What new opportunity or idea has emerged?
- What was needed that could have prevented the failure?
And if you are an individual reflecting:
- Who are you going to report it to?
Yes, that last one is a tough one – but essential to building on your failure and moving forward. Challenge yourself to share your stories with your trusted manager or colleagues. Be the champion for changing the perspective on failure in your workplace but sharing your failure stories and using them to revise, regroup and go again. “..the best kinds of failures are quick, cheap, and early, leaving you plenty of time and resources to learn from the experiment and iterate your ideas.” (IDEO)