You Can't Just Encourage Failure - You Must Also Get Employees to Own Up to It


I can't tell you how many leaders and managers I have heard say something along the lines of, "If you aren't failing, you aren't trying hard enough."

It's a great thought, and it's something that resonates with all of us. After all, we know that frequently the very best ideas, or the most successful people, come from failing big or failing frequently, as in "If you're not failing regularly, you're not trying hard enough." Even Abraham Lincoln failed a lot in his life, although perhaps not as much as some would want you to believe.

In fact, if you Google "famous failures" you'll get 6.2 million responses and a number of famous names such as Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, and the Beatles to name just a few.

What gets in the way of learning from failure

So, encouraging employees to make mistakes, to fail, is a key strategy for leaders, right? Or as a Forbes article noted, "Helping people learn by letting them fail is essential."

However, there are two things that get in the way of letting employees learn and ultimately succeed by failing:

  1. Lots of organizations say that they encourage failure but then fail to support employees when they do.
  2. Most people don't want to admit failure even when it is offered up as an organizational value that employees are urged to embrace.

Justin Brady in the Harvard Business Review dug into this second point recently in an article titled Don't Be a Hypocrite About Failure. In it he wrote,

If you’re at least a little interested in human creativity and the invention process, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Fail fast to learn faster, failure is necessary to innovate, we must fail to succeed, blah blah blah.

The truth is the large majority of us are failure hypocrites."

4 problems with minimizing failure

Brady goes on to detail his own experience in being open and honest about failure, and how many of his consulting clients refuse to admit to it as well. He says,

I get it. Leaders don’t want to feel vulnerable. They want to minimize their own failures. Doing so might seem harmless, but it’s vitally important for leaders not only to accept failure with lip service but also to cop to their own specific failures. Not doing so can cause four very real problems."

These four problems that flow out of a failure to fess up and admit to failure are not that hard to guess:

  1. If you can’t admit failure, you cannot connect with your team. 
  2. If you can’t admit failure, you won’t learn from it.
  3. If you can’t admit failure, you won’t tolerate it from others.
  4. If you can’t admit failure, you’ll find your own future failures tough to handle. 

Brady is right; getting people to own up to failure is tough because we get taught, usually from an early age, that it's bad to be a failure and that we should do anything and everything to avoid that. In fact, Jim Moffatt, Managing Director of Deloitte, wrote in Forbes that there are generational issues when it comes to accepting (and learning) from failure:

What’s the best way to get our newest employees to stay motivated after struggling? How can we help them respond to failure not with surrender but with certainty that a better approach is possible? This happens to be a major challenge in the workplace, especially with the Millennial generation."

Be open and honest to increase employee risk taking

Moffatt gives a six-pack of suggestions for how to "increase employees' comfort with the risk of failure," and they're really something that any organization that truly wants to encourage risk taking and failure in the pursuit of the greater, long-term good should consider:

  1. Share past stories of struggle. Everyone’s been there.
  2. Practice recovery so people aren’t paralyzed by failure. When I was coaching sports, we didn’t just diagram plays. We always developed a Plan B. That’s why great organizations scenario-plan. It helps people think of struggle as part of the process.
  3. Help people around you think like long-term investors in their own ideas and their own careers. The aim shouldn’t be to try to have one uninterrupted string of successes, but rather to have a portfolio of some winners and, yes, some losers.
  4. If someone is struggling, your job is to figure out how to get them on the right path. The real job of a manager is to help people learn from failure and move forward.
  5. Champion failure that turns to innovation. Find examples where ordinary failure has led to extraordinary opportunity.
  6. Encourage failing fast. Sometimes we recognize that something is failing, and our instinct tells us to push harder to make it succeed. Knowing when to pull the plug is always difficult but is necessary.

My take: Great leadership advice is pretty hard to come by, but Jim Moffatt's six suggestions for managing employee risk taking is something that very and any manager or leader should paste at eye level in their office, cubicle, or designated work space because it cuts to the heart of the issues so many have with handling failure.

I'd also offer up one more thing -- don't say that the organization encourages failure and risk taking if it clearly does not. It's sort of like having an open-door policy; your employees will believe you until they find that what you say is not what you really mean.

Yes, being open and honest is as big a corporate value as encouraging failure and risk taking. And, you can't have the latter unless you truly have the former. Keep that in mind the next time you find that your employees don't want to put their necks on the line.