No one likes to fail – and it can be even harder to face, let alone embrace when you're a leader.
But rather than viewing failure as something negative when we reframe it as a learning tool, it can be a launchpad for future success.
As the Dalai Lama said "Forget the failures. Keep the lessons." But how can we individually embrace this approach, and encourage our teams to do the same?
Be prepared to fail
To master failure, you need to prepare for it, and that’s all about mindset and resilience. If taking risks doesn't come naturally to you start with your strengths. When you have proof points of your expertise, knowledge, and experience taking a 'risk' seems less risky. And if something doesn't go your way but was based on sound judgement, it's much easier to build on.
Failure as a learning tool
Researchers talk about the 'Ostrich effect', the human inclination to put our heads in the sand when we've chosen a direction and just hope for the best. But if we instead look up and anticipate obstacles, we're more likely to get success at the end of the journey.
And we’re reluctant to pay attention to obstacles and failures after the event too, in a recent study researchers found that when asked to share a specific time they had been successful and a specific time they had failed at work, 70% chose to just share a success.
We’re quick to bury failure, to consign it to history, and move on because it hurts our self-esteem and forces us to be vulnerable. But failure happens to everyone, and it can teach us a lot. If you can take a step back, dissect the choices you made, the reasoning behind those decisions, and the factors that caused you to fail there are endless learnings to be taken. We only know our limits if we challenge ourselves and explore them. It’s a process called double-looping, not only correcting a mistake but taking time to examine the thoughts and actions that might have led to it – reinforcing and strengthening the lessons learned.
Creating the right environment
Learning from failure is only possible in the right environment, if you want your team to embrace it, they need to feel psychologically safe to do it. Your team needs to feel safe to openly admit errors and failures without being judged, without the threat of negative outcomes, and without the fear of embarrassment. If you want to really embrace it, join the trend for ‘screw-up nights’ where everyone’s invited to step up the mic and talk about mistakes they’ve made – consequence-free.
A fail-fast culture of innovation
When you give people permission to fail you give them permission to think freely. The fail-fast culture of start-ups is well known, but even if you're an established business there are lessons to be learned from it and principles you can use with your team.
It stems from iterative design thinking and centres around redefining and getting quick feedback. It's not a methodology that you're going to want to apply to your business strategy or your financial forecasts, but it is something that can get you and your team creating and testing ideas quickly - and without fear of failure.
Sometimes the big ideas can get bogged down in research, analysis, and caution. But when your team has permission to explore, get something out there, fail, pivot, and then try again. Your team will then be willing to experiment and generate new ways of thinking and doing.
Design and innovation sprints are great ways to embed this way of thinking into your business. Short, intense bursts of activity that can rapidly solve big challenges, generate ideas and improve processes.
Failure makes you a better leader
So rather than fleeing from failure, as leaders, we should embrace it. Not only can it help our teams it can help us become better leaders.
With every failure that we successfully bounce back from we become more resilient. And the only way to get that resilience is to dare to fail.
The personal failure we feel gives us the compassion to understand when a member of our team doesn't hit the mark. We can support and coach them with empathy and understanding and instil a culture of care and compassion.
Don’t be afraid to share our failures, to lose the cloak of perfectionism, and be an authentic leader. This will help you to connect better with your team.
It can take real courage for us to admit when we get things wrong. But by embracing our failures we not only grow personally but can benefit collectively from lessons learned and use them as a foundation for future success.
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