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Learning to fail

Four ways to encourage failure at work.

Al Thompson Head of Content & Partnerships

Learning to fail

The other day I got sucked into watching Facebook videos when I chanced upon one of an 8 year old boy called Theo. Theo was doing his best to learn how to backflip on his BMX – and after countless failed attempts, bumps and bruises, he finally managed to land his new trick to the utter delight of both himself and his Mum.

This got me thinking – the only reason Theo was able to learn this trick was because his Mum created and fostered a ‘safe’ environment for him to continually fail, learn from his mistakes and then eventually succeed.

After reading some of the Facebook comments citing terrible parenting skills, I asked myself – are we even allowed to fail anymore, both as children and adults?

Because if we’re not – how on earth do we learn?

Learning by failure – not a new idea

I started to wonder whether we, as L&D professionals (and indeed the organisation as a whole), are allowing our employees to fail like Theo did, to learn from our mistakes to evolve and get better at what we’re doing? Are we positioning failure as a growth technique, rather than a pejorative term to mean unsuccessful, poor, or not good?

Could we be doing more to create a safe place to allow our employees to fail – and subsequently help them learn better?

Learning through failure is not a new concept; in fact, many of the world’s most successful CEOs celebrate failure as a key driver in the ongoing evolution, scalability and iteration of a business. Most startups are hungry and accept that they have to often learn through failure – and the most successful businesses maintain that sentiment regardless of how big they get.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

So I ask you – do your employees feel safe enough to fail? Do they work in an environment which allows them to make mistakes, create errors and not have dire repercussions when doing so? If no, why not?

How to help your teams fail

The wisdom of learning from failure is indisputable, yet organisations that do it well are extraordinarily rare. This gap is not due to a lack of commitment to learning, but instead a steadfast sentiment that failure is bad.

But it’s not the detrimental, business-devastating action that we’re making it out to be. In my opinion, allowing failure at work isn’t just around not punishing or scorning employees for getting things wrong or making errors. It’s also about creating an environment which fosters openness – encouraging all ideas (no idea is a bad idea mentality), and facilitating brainstorming and communication so that early ‘failures’ can be caught, amended and resolved easily and with much less friction.

4 ways to encourage failure at work

The reality is, creating environments where ‘failures’ are caught early allows for much less work in the long run. For example, projects aren’t hindered because stakeholders see efforts and ideas in early inception stages. They can then catch errors, spot discrepancies and easily make amends or changes etc. If this sort of sharing is only done in the later stages, amends and changes are much more tenuous (and painful for the individual who ‘failed’.).

So what can you do to make failure a safe place for your employees?

1. Stop pointing fingers

The dichotomy of fault and failure is commonplace in many organisations. “They did this, so that happened.” We’ve all been part of the blame game at some point in our working lives. But the problem with blame is that it singles someone out. It explicitly highlights their inadequacies or ‘failures’ and creates an environment where people will try to hide errors for fear of being shamed for their mistakes. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.

Of course, there’s a fear that not designating blame for incidents means that the business will appear lenient or ‘soft’, but the reality is that in most cases pointing fingers just results in future lost opportunities to evolve. There will always be some incidents which are blameworthy, such as deliberate deviance, but these are the anomaly. Don’t let the few ruin it for the many.

2. Encourage idea sharing and early drafts of work

As I mentioned earlier – one of the biggest reasons why failure should be encouraged is because it catches potential issues early. This is a huge benefit to both employee and employer – saving time for both whilst also not shattering the souls of staff who’ve put their blood, sweat and tears into something only to discover it is not correct or done as expected.

Thrive has been no exception when it comes to failure. Our Content Club, and indeed what we’re now calling our Learning & Skills Platform, go way beyond what we originally conceived. Because we experimented, found out what didn’t work, or in many cases actually intentionally tried to break it and fail. And then we learned from it; in the end we were able to create something much better and make the teams’ efforts more worthwhile.

That was only possible because we nurtured an environment which welcomed and accepted failure as a core component for growth. And this nurturing doesn’t come just from the likes of me, the CEO. This is something management and every employee needs to connect with and believe in.

3. Foster a culture of openness and communication

Fear of failure causes a real problem in businesses. As I said earlier, failure isn’t always about making mistakes. It’s also about preventing them by fostering a culture of honesty and curating a sense of self and safety for your employees.

If you allow them to be honest and open with their work, as they are working, rather than ringfencing it until delivery, you can allay many, many challenges. And keep your staff happier because they haven’t devoted all their time to something to just have it ripped to shreds on delivery.

Communication is key here – encourage openness, constructive feedback and more to expose early ‘failures’ and nip real problems in the bud early. Make sure you do what you can to leverage technology to drive more connectedness and discourse between your people and cultivate a culture of growth.

4. Embrace failures (however small) and learn from them

Your company culture needs to welcome failure and shift the mindset from failure being bad to an environment where failing is welcomed, embraced and accepted as a great opportunity to learn.

We’re all human beings and we do make mistakes. But if you can nurture a culture which welcomes and curates failures as an intrinsic element of the fabric of the business, you’ll find there’s suddenly more ideas at the table. You’ll probably also find your staff are more receptive to criticism and feedback because they aren’t fearful of the consequences.

The carrot or the stick? The carrot will always win. Positive reinforcement and recognition can only be a good thing in the workplace. It works here at THRIVE and truthfully, I believe it’s really the only way to do business.

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