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Leading the way in embracing failure

In my recent blog post on Making Failure Your Friend, I focused on rewiring your belief system to reject your existing operating plan in relation to failure and instead embrace failure as a powerful tool for growth. However, no matter how positive an individual's relationship with failure, if the leaders in your organisation do not see failure in the same way this can be problematic, making it difficult for your team to grow and thrive.

Blame, or fault, is often apportioned when there’s a failure. This doesn’t refer here to finding a reason for the failure or to pulling out the lessons, it refers to finding a scapegoat to take the fall. Sadly, many organisations have a culture of blame. When people don’t feel safe to take risks and fail, you cultivate a culture of blame, and you prevent your people from learning from their failures. They can feel inclined to ‘cover up’ their failures rather than owning them and using them as a tool to learn.

For many people, to admit you have failed means accepting the blame. Often blame comes with negative consequences, so it’s tempting to deflect blame to preserve your status/reputation/prospects for promotion. Finger pointing is counterproductive, as it prevents us from learning from our mistakes and we have a high risk of repeating the same errors over and over. Blaming is a learned behaviour from our past conditioning, with our ego at the root of it all and working in an organisation where this reaction to failure is the norm exacerbates it.

How can we change our response to failure as a team or business?

Some leaders fear embracing failure due to a perceived risk of tipping the balance too far in the other direction. Too much negativity around fear creates a blame culture, but there is a perception that too much positivity could give people the green light to try absolutely anything with no regard for the outcome. Also, if you want your team to put in maximum effort, would the removal of consequences for failure impact that? Would people stop trying quite so hard?

To answer that it’s important to consider why a failure might occur in the first place as there are different categories and causes of failure. If a team member doesn’t stick to a project plan, agreed on by the team, or doesn’t fulfil their duties, this might warrant some degree of personal responsibility for a failure. But what about if you signed off a plan, everyone followed through on their tasks and it still didn’t achieve the expected outcomes? Who is to blame then? Surely there is no personal blame in that scenario, just an experiment that didn’t work out and an opportunity to learn.

Without the right frameworks around failure, the need to find someone to blame when things go wrong is strong, regardless of whether or not everyone pulled their weight and stuck to the plan, as people fear for their own status and reputation. Usually, one person or team wears the personal consequences, despite the outcomes being out of their direct control, and when that happens the lessons can be lost. This environment generates anxiety around failure and, as a result, a culture of blame and a negative relationship with failure prevails.

Embracing failure as a team

To make changes within your team around the response to failure, as a leader you must first work on your own relationship with failure. Just as your vibrational energy filters through your team and sets the tone, your own relationship with failure, and ability to own it and learn from it, will trickle down through your team.

Be vulnerable in sharing your own failures. This leads by example and creates a safe environment for your team to stretch themselves. Encourage your people to test and learn and collectively share and own their failures, individually and as a team, with a focus on the growth outcome as opposed to the negatives.

All of this requires EQ. Empathy, listening, observing and supporting will all foster the right environment for growth by accepting and embracing failure as an opportunity rather than a threat.


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