On the surface, it might seem like a workplace where people are afraid to fail would lead to greater success. But that’s not the way it works. When people are afraid to fail, they’re not focused on doing big, new exciting things—they’re focused on not messing up. When this attitude takes hold, it can hurt the whole organization: how successful and innovative can you be if your employees don’t see the value in improving their performance, taking risks or trying new things?
As a manager, you know that there’s no way to succeed without embracing failure. When we internalize our fear of failure—both as individuals and as organizations—we can overestimate the odds of failing and the consequences of doing so, resulting in a kind of paralysis that can keep us from accomplishment and fulfillment. The great French philosopher and essayist Montaigne captured this wonderfully when he said, “There were many terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened.”
You’re in a position to build a culture that’s strong in what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety,” by creating an atmosphere where your direct reports can feel comfortable taking risks that might lead to failure, talking about their failures and learning from them on the way to success. Here are three ways to get started:
1. Make it clear that failure isn’t the opposite of success.
When you’re trying new things, the possibility of failure comes with the territory. When you launch your next project, try being explicit about this with your team. Let them know that even if there are missteps, setbacks or unexpected turns along the way, that doesn’t mean the entire endeavor is a failure—in fact, those moments often provide the best learning opportunities that will help the team move forward.
2. Think hard about who gets rewarded and promoted.
It goes without saying that certain kinds of failure—letting colleagues down, abusing trust, cutting corners—should never be rewarded. But when employees embrace failure in a different way—by learning from their mistakes and genuinely striving to improve, innovate and evolve—they deserve to be recognized. When it comes time to make the tough decisions about promotions, bonuses and assignments, make this part of your calculations. When employees feel incentivized to embrace failure, they’ll respond in a way that benefits the whole team.
3. Be open about your own failures.
As a manager, you’re a role model by definition. When your direct reports hear you speak openly about times in your own career when you missed the mark, they’ll see you in a different light. Show them that vulnerability, perspective and an ability to bounce back are all completely synonymous with—and essential to—success.