Failure as motivation: How to allow leaders to fail and learn

Failure in the workplace can happen for many reasons. It’s not pleasant. But, at the same time, failure can help plant the seeds for future success.

For that to happen, though, requires a growth mindset and a learning culture where people feel safe to experiment and, yes, fail.

Our recent research finds that, after on-the-job experience in general, failure taught many current business leaders the most important lessons they wish they had known earlier in their careers.

In our survey of more than 500 leaders, respondents described many reasons for past failures: poor communication, poor time management, lack of personal skills or poor organisational planning and decision-making capabilities. Whatever the cause, those failures proved to be instructive and valuable over the long term, especially for leaders who were just starting out.

One respondent, for example, recalled, “... my boss assigned me a major project that needed communication skills, talking, connecting through different people. Because I’m a poor talker, I can’t express myself at all, it gave me a hard time. With this incident, I got scolded a lot, but I also learned a lot”.

Learning from failure becomes possible in workplaces where people feel psychologically safe, with co-workers who are ready to communicate and share, the University of Haifa’s Abraham Carmeli wrote in a paper published in the journal Long Range Planning in 2007. “In organisations where strong (positive) social capital exists, members reported that they felt safe to speak openly and discuss errors and failures without being threatened by the possibility of punishment or embarrassment, and that there was a high rate of failure-based learning behaviours.”

Individuals can also better manage – and learn from – failure by approaching setbacks in more productive ways, executive career transition coach Susan Peppercorn advises in a December 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review. “Redefine failure” to minimise anxiety over situations that might be out of your control, she says: for example, in a job interview, rather than viewing it as a failure if you aren’t hired, view the experience as a success if you answered questions correctly and performed well. She also recommends focusing on positive goals you want to achieve, rather than negative outcomes you want to avoid; writing a list of fears and how you might prevent or repair failures; and, finally, making a decision to learn from experience, whatever the outcome.

People can gain valuable lessons from failure through a process called double-loop learning. This involves not only correcting a mistake, but examining the thoughts and assumptions that might have led to that mistake and others. Handling failures in this way allows people to reinforce and embed the lessons they’ve learned from their errors.

Organisations that want to develop leaders who can learn in this way need cultures that encourage experimentation and failure, and that support leaders – especially young ones early in their careers – who make mistakes.

Look, for instance, at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who wrote in his 2018 letter to shareholders, “As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle... Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out.” He added, “The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers.”

Businesses can also promote failure-based learning behaviours by paying attention to both internal and external social capital, Carmeli notes. Internally, they need to make a habit of studying organisational failures and near-failures. This helps people become comfortable with openly discussing mistakes and shortcomings. Top leaders should also meet weekly to exchange ideas and talk about trends, capabilities and objectives not met. Externally, Carmeli adds, businesses can also promote learning through mentorships as well as through regular meetings with customers and other stakeholders.

Our research further suggests that businesses should seek out ways to give potential leaders new responsibilities and challenges that will encourage on-the-job learning and embed the lessons gained from mistakes and failures. And they should look to nurture leaders who demonstrate a growth mindset that allows them to learn in such ways.

Such organisational strategies enable people to “fail forward”, learn from mistakes and grow, rather than “fail backwards”, blame others and repeat the same mistakes. And that is vital for any business that wants to cultivate successful future leaders.

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School
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