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Why embracing and discussing failure is good for your company culture

Rather than trying to brush over mistakes or ignoring something when it goes wrong, companies should look to not only accept it, but open up and embrace failure: Realigning thinking.

3 Dec 2018 | 10 min read

Workplace discussion

We all know the phrase ‘fail-fast’, the mantra associated with many a start-up, but for many businesses, failing is still exactly that, a failure.

When a new idea or project goes sour, those goals aren’t met, or new business visions and hopes aren’t realised; it’s the elephant in the room. Most people want to ignore that it ever happened, hoping that it will go away and be forgotten, but we shouldn’t.

Rather than trying to brush over mistakes or ignoring something when it goes wrong, companies should look to not only accept it, but open up and embrace failure.

Realigning thinking

From our school days, with tests and exams, a fear of failure can be deeply instilled, with a sense of black and white between failure and success. The problem with this, though, is that no business, career or indeed, even our time at school, will run smoothly. Making mistakes is par for the course for any business and any one – even the likes of Netflix and Amazon can testify to that – and ultimately it is those mistakes that lay the foundations for long-term success.  

Despite this, many of us continue to cling on to that belief that no successful business or employee makes mistakes – and that’s not only the case for new beginners and young joiners fresh out of university, but this mindset can be held by anyone across a business, even those near the end of their career. No matter your seniority or experience, if there’s no visibility around the notion of failure, then it’s hard to shift that perception.

So, be transparent. It’s time to switch up your employees’ thinking, re-wiring those school day teachings to focus on the benefits a bumpy journey can bring. This is where managers and senior leaders can play a key role in helping change attitudes, sharing their own blunders and mishaps they faced on the way to where they are now – and just because you’re in a senior role doesn’t mean you’re immune to mistakes either. The difference though is how you deal with it afterwards, and that’s the point to be made.

Opening up communication

If employees think that your workplace shuns failure, then it is likely to lead to more mistakes. Employees who realise that there is a problem will not flag it to others but keep quiet, perhaps even try to cover it up. But this doesn’t make the problem go away, if anything, this makes it worse. It allows for the issue to bubble away unnoticed, slowly snowballing until it could become a much bigger issue.

It could even be that other employees have had the same concerns but also felt too afraid to say anything. If people feel that they can open up about mistakes then it can be addressed and resolved.

It’s true, though, no matter how much managers or senior leaders may say that they would rather hear about a problem than not or even after sharing their own concerns, we can still be reluctant to speak up, especially if that means owning up to making a mistake. It’s back to those school days again, when the teacher assures you that you won’t get into trouble and you have to put your hand up and own up to something in front of the whole class.

But it needn’t be a hand-raising exercise, you can create a safe space where employees feel that they can be honest, without any judgement from others. For those nervous to speak out, ensure that they can do also do so anonymously, if they wish. After all it is not about finger pointing, but uncovering an issue, addressing it and changing it for the better.

Moving on

The realisation and discovery that something isn’t working can in fact be the key that unlocks a whole new approach, propelling a business in a whole new direction – one that could be the better path to reach those goals and successes.

A workplace that embraces failure is in the best position to cultivate a culture of learning and development, with employees confident to seek out and learn new skills, and perhaps more importantly, helping your business to innovate and move forward. If employees feel that they can be open and forthcoming about failure, then they will be more likely to take those risks, whether trying out new approaches or tools or simply suggesting that crazy idea that may just turn a failing project around.

Still, this new approach may still take a little encouragement. This could be something as small as adding an agenda point to meetings for “crazy new ideas” or “Someday, Maybe” opening it up to the floor, or at the Christmas party when you’re giving out prizes, why not have one for the person who’s tried out the most new ideas this year?

There is a difference between taking risks and being reckless. Risks can still be calculated and planned for. This is not about completely throwing caution to the wind but rather the aim here is to instill a culture of honesty, learning and experimentation. “Failure” is in fact a vital part of any company’s work culture and business success, it’s all about how you choose to embrace it.

Originally published on Forbes


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