This article is about Failing Forward and why it is important to create a safe, work culture that encourages employees and employers to learn from their mistakes.
The fear of failure can be one of the most anxiety inducing aspects of the workplace. It can affect anyone regardless of their position and contribute to toxic perfectionism, create riffs in communication, and discourage experimentation, having a profound effect on company morale. So, how can one combat against these highly unrealistic expectations? Fail forward. While it might seem counterintuitive, it is important to understand that failing forward means cultivating an environment of growth so that everyone can feel comfortable with taking risks and learning from them, whether they pan out or not.
Although everyone might agree that it is ideal for employees to learn from their mistakes to become stronger leaders, it is often easier said than done. As Amy C. Edmonson, a Professor at Harvard Business School, describes in her article Strategies for Learning from Failure, people often get caught in “the blame game” which makes it difficult to talk about failure openly. Not only can these conversations be emotionally charged and “chip away at our self-esteem,” but it can also be cognitively challenging, as we tend to “downplay our responsibility and place undue blame on external or situational factors… only to do the reverse when assessing the failures of others.”
When employees work in constant fear of being blamed for failure, it hinders a company’s ability to take creative risks that might help further their success, since no one wants to lose their job over a mistake. Stephen Childs touches on this issue in Failing Forward – And Why It’s Ok stating that “every failure bears valuable information. What better reason does your team need than to try and try again to get the winning recipe for success before the competition does?” This argument is also supported by Mike Maddock (If You Have to Fail –And You Do—Fail Forward) who argues that “the real failure” is not launching an idea until its perfect, using “the perfect CD player” as an example of how this outdated technology would not work in today’s market.
In order to foster a growth mindset amongst employees, leaders can focus on creating an environment that supports a person’s skills and abilities, as well as the opportunity to improve with each challenge or setback. This is only possible if leaders can “counteract the blame game” to help their team “feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures” (Strategies for Learning from Failure). Again, this is easier said than done, as it can be difficult to embrace the unknown and trust the learning process. In Edmonson’s various interviews with executives, she found that many of them felt torn, asking questions like: “How can they respond constructively to failures without giving rise to an anything-goes attitude? If people aren’t blamed for failures, what will ensure that they try as hard as possible to do their best work?” However, these questions do not acknowledge that growth must start from inside out, and that ultimately failing forward will help “drive sustainability,” as well as “teach collaboration, empowerment and resilience” (Failing Forward – And Why It’s Ok).
Failure is a terrifying concept for anyone, but it can be utilized to help push your business forward. Instead of trapping employees in “the blame game,” encourage them to take risks and be honest about what didn’t work. When setbacks are viewed as lessons to be learned, it sets the company up for a new discoveries and innovative solutions that will help sustain them in the future. So, while it is natural to worry if employees will slack off if there is too much leeway for mistakes, building a strong growth mindset will only empower your team to keep moving forward and produce even higher quality work. Be sure to check out Failing Forward: Part 2.