Your team might be afraid to take risks, whether it be presenting a new idea or implementing a change, because of the fear that this big, daunting monster called failure could present itself. The fear of failure is one of the top reasons we avoid taking risks both as individuals in life and as leaders in our organizations. At work, this fear can stem from an organizational culture ingrained with negative consequences for those that fail. If failure is reframed as positive, or even celebrated as a learning opportunity, the fear of failure quickly loses its power over us.
Reframing Failure in Organizations
Reframing failure allows your team to see the benefit of risk-taking. It also reinforces that mistakes are necessary as stepping stones towards success. Often, mistakes even have value. Emphasize the importance of smart failures in your organization. Be open and willing to adapt, get out of the comfort zone, and to take risks when necessary to set an example for your team. Remember: Learning what doesn’t work is just as important as learning what does.
“It is worth far more trying something innovative and falling short, than just existing in mediocrity.” - Katie Pritchett Ph.D., Lecturer in Management, McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin
4 Ways to Turn Failure Around
1. Accept and Embrace Failure
As a leader, you are in prime position to lay the groundwork for accepting failures that will undoubtedly happen in your organization. Create an environment that is conducive to open, proactive dialogue about the potential for failure. Planning out the worst case scenario can help your team realize that outcomes might not be so bad, which can often take the wind out of the sails of the perceived failure. It’s also a chance to create an action plan to deal with realistic pitfalls.
By embracing failure in a positive way, your team can alter their mindset towards it. Help them by debunking the idea that failure is bad and disappointing, and instead framing it as a good, useful, and even valuable outcome. Failures do not have to be identity defining situations; they can be a source of motivation for your team.
2. Gold Stars for Failure
Success usually gets more praise and attention, but smart failures deserve to be rewarded too. What’s more, encouraging and rewarding failure in a structured way will pay off. When you recognize smart failures as positives, your team will be incentivized to take more risks and initiative and to seek more creative, out-of-the-box solutions. By positively acknowledging failure, the stigma and negativity is lessened and even eliminated.
One way to provide “gold stars for failure” is to explicitly integrate it into your KPIs. Make it clear cut: focus on trying new techniques and implementing new ideas, including space to fail and dedicated time to share experiences after the fact through meetings and retrospectives.
3. Lessons from Failing
Emotions—frustration, anger, sadness—are often wrapped up in failure. As humans, there is a tendency to harp on these feelings and concentrate on the failure itself. Help your team redirect their focus to the lessons rather than on the failure itself. Every failure is a chance to get back in the saddle and try again with new found knowledge of what was—and was not—effective.
When it comes to testing a new idea or process, encourage your team to take note of which aspects are not working. Analyze, break down, and debrief about where improvements can be made, using the next attempt to iterate or build on these realizations. You can even incorporate “failure conferences,” or internal meetings to debrief on what went wrong after the fact, into your workplace. When failures are presented by senior leadership, it can help eliminate their association with negative repercussions.
4. Share Your Pitfalls
Everyone has failed at some point in their life, even if they don’t talk about it. As a leader, be open to sharing your experiences of professional risks you've taken, mistakes you’ve made, and failures you’ve had. Share how you mitigated risk and handled uncertainty, and how your efforts led to the successes that got you where you are today. Making yourself vulnerable will demonstrate the most important takeaway: failure is not a be all, end all. Your failures subsequently led to higher-quality decisions, and you are successful not in spite of them but because of them.
Failure as a Key to Success
Sir James Dyson, of Dyson Inc. once said “The key to success is failure… Success is made up of 99% failure.”
By creating an atmosphere that embraces risk-taking and does not shy away from failure, you can squash the negative stigma that comes along with failing. You and your team will be better equipped to deal with instances of falling short of expectations, and instead find a way to celebrate and learn from these milestones. Your reaction to failure situations, and understanding they are part of achieving success, is key.