Removing the fear of failure is essential to your personal growth – and the growth of your business. Discussing and learning from failures is also one of the best ways to future-proof your business.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many organisations have had to face problems they’ve not dealt with before. And though this is challenging for everyone, those companies with ‘failure-positive’ cultures tended to adapt much faster. Their agile approach allowed them to react quickly to changing conditions, and they already had systems in place for analysing and learning from failures.
So what are the core lessons of that approach, and how can you implement them in your own team or company?
We’ve all heard the famous Silicon Valley motto: fail fast, fail often. And though this approach has plenty of problems, at its inception it was responding to a very real issue. The prevailing business culture was hierarchical and slow-moving; these new tech companies wanted to focus on innovation, which just didn’t work with a risk-averse approach.
By now there are innumerable business podcasts focusing on innovation in tech. Some, such as StartUp, document missteps, and explain how they often ended up contributing to later successes. By openly discussing this, and reframing these ‘failures’ as just steps along the path to success, they help undermine the outsized fear of failure which holds back so many individuals and companies.
Making opportunities for failure
When trying to get used to failure, you don’t have to jump in at the deep end. Instead, you can practice being a gracious loser in low-stakes competitions (team-building days can be very helpful here!) and by learning something new.
Many companies only offer training to staff in areas directly related to their roles, I think this can be a little short-sighted. By offering a wider range of learning opportunities, you encourage engagement and help your employees become more well-rounded.
Also, by encouraging them to learn something completely new, you enable them to experience low-stakes failures and frustrations – and this is as much of a lesson as the material they’re studying. It helps normalise failure as part of a process of improvement, which makes larger-scale failures less scary.
One area he focuses on is mentorship, both vertical (eg senior manager to employee) and horizontal (eg within the management team). As he puts it:
“The people involved in this practice of mentoring often reflected on the difficulties and errors that had been observed. This proved very useful in terms of refraining from oversimplifying problems and avoiding repeated mistakes. On the individual level, people gained new knowledge, often vital for their career development. They felt the companies perceived their value and trusted their competence.”
Whether by providing internal mentorship or external coaching, businesses need to give employees opportunities to discuss and learn from failures. Not only does this help them avoid repeating mistakes (their own or others), but it also develops a perception that the company cares about them and their continued development, leading to increased loyalty.
Psychological safety and failure
Clearly, the ability to fail and – crucially – to learn and move on from each failure is vital to developing an agile, future-proof organisation.
In Project Aristotle, Google found that high psychological safety was the single most important element uniting its successful teams. And as Amy Edmondson explains, when you feel psychologically safe you’re not afraid of taking reasonable risks and occasionally failing.
As such, businesses looking to become resilient and future-proof need to move past the fear of failure. To do this, it’s important to focus on building up psychological safety throughout the organisation.