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Inspiring Failure at Work

Updated: May 25, 2023

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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

~ Thomas Edison

I still get anxious when going to parent-teacher conferences for my boys.

When I was a kid and my parents would come home with that “look” in their eye, I knew just what was coming: the cringe-inducing “but” sandwich statement. They would praise me for trying and getting good grades, but I didn’t take school seriously enough.

As a social person, I always received a big fat “NI” next to the report card line “Listens Attentively in Class.” My downfall was that I talked “too much.”

I never meant to be rude or bad. I was just doing what came naturally, what made me feel happy and engaged.

School and work have always been social activities for me. I love learning and connecting with people.

I did try to be quiet: it just was something I failed at, over and over and over.

Different teachers had different techniques to try to change this. Usually, they tried to surround me with the quiet kids — only I was just as talented as getting them to talk and usually found them the most interesting.

My 8th-grade history teacher tried to surround me with all the boys...well, let’s just say that didn’t work either!

After paying for part of my business degree with an acting scholarship and graduating, I landed a job in as an HR Rep in a beer factory. My Dad looked at me proudly and said:

Of course you found a way to make money drinking beer and socializing!”

(We all know there's much more to HR than that, but he is a Mechanical Engineer, so I’m not sure I will ever convince his logical brain otherwise.)

In my mind, I have turned this particular “failure” into one of my greatest assets. I can quickly connect with people and build cohesive teams for my employers and clients.

In the beer factory, for instance, I reduced employee union grievances by nearly 60% by spending a good chunk of each day talking and listening to employees.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

When it comes to “failure” at work, how much wiggle room is there?

Many of us are already aware that great learning happens when we can harness the power to overcome a setback, but we tend to reserve these types of learning experiences for the kids: Whey fall off their bike and scrape their knee, we tell them they must try again; if their soccer team loses, we encourage them to get back on the field, and so on.

And on the other side of the coin, most of us have also heard of these “famous” failures:

  • Abraham Lincoln was defeated for Congress, Senate Congress, and had a nervous breakdown before winning the Presidential election

  • Oprah’s first boss told her that she was too emotional and not right for television

  • J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected by 12 different publishers and Stephen King’s Carrie was shot down by 30

  • The Beatles were told that “guitar music is on the way out” as they were rejected by Decca Records

  • Walt Disney was told that he wasn’t creative enough...

This list goes on.

Are we offering our employees the grace to fail?

We know there's value in learning from mistakes, and that innovators and entrepreneurial types might just understand that they must keep taking those risks.

But what about the rest of us? What happens when we get into the “real” world, working full-time, high-stress jobs?

Is there really room for failure there?

And as leaders, are we giving our employees the grace to fail?

In his book Agents of Change: Unleashing the Innovation of Real-Life Superheroes, Mike Thomas uses the word “failure” 38 times throughout the book, and frames it as a critical element in building an organizational culture of innovation.

Thomas challenges readers to consider whether a young Thomas Edison and his 10,000 failures would be successful in their own organizational culture, posing questions like:

Would Edison be encouraged to continue his pursuit of the light bulb, or would he be pressured to merely deliver a better candle (longer-lasting? Scented?)?

Personally, I wonder if Edison would make it past his 90-day probation in many work environments.

How Leaders Can Leave Room for Failure

We’re all familiar with the “quick to hire; quicker to fire” attitude, but if you really think about what this means for the human experience, it’s horrific.

As organizational leaders, we should take great care in building a winning team.

And in order to win, we must first allow them to play, and playing sometimes means losing or making a bad choice.

Here are a few ideas by Thomas that can be easily integrated into your organization without total chaos taking control.

  • Leaders need to admit and share their own failures, and how they used their failures to push themselves forward to success. When it becomes acceptable to admit mistakes, more people will feel comfortable sharing, and everyone learns. But leaders must lead by example.

  • Organizations should stop prioritizing short-term results when conducting performance reviews and setting assignment goals. Most truly innovative goals won’t be fully delivered in a year (and will often take several).

  • Redefine success and reward “smart” failures.

  • Recognize short-term behaviors and long-term results.

  • Reward learning milestones and even failures, not merely end results.

  • Examine how well risk-taking is actually received — for instance, leaders might tell people to “take a risk” but then get mad at mistakes. So there needs to be more of a reward system even if there is a mistake — acknowledge that the person tried and then help them find an alternate route.

  • Help employees to understand which risks are okay to take and be transparent about.

Redefining “Failure”

Because I talked too much in class, teachers made some pretty big assumptions about me over the years, all of which stemmed from the assumption that talking in class was a fault: I didn’t care about school; I was a busy-body or a gossip; I didn’t respect authority; I never took anything “seriously.”

But none of this was true. I grew up in the country with kids too far away to play with and siblings that didn't come until I was eight years old. So, I spent most of my time away from school alone and reading which I love as much (probably more) than talking but they didn’t see that side.

No amount of tenacity or high marks was going to change their perception of me. I was always underestimated. Luckily, I had parents who helped me wash down the criticism by acknowledging my efforts and rewarding my accomplishments.

We All Do It

This is not a critique of education — we all are socialized, for the most part, to dissuade people from making mistakes.

We quickly eliminate the candidate who fumbles the question. We seek out mistakes because if you make one, we believe that more are on the way. We give A's to people who answer the questions correctly.

But the older I get, the more I understand that the thing that makes us stand out from the pack is often our greatest strength, whether that “something” is deemed by society as an asset or detriment.

What if we could just skip the whole “trying to be normal” part of the puzzle, and embrace who we really are in our organizations and lives?

Sometimes failure is the only option, and may even be necessary in discovering who we are, elevating our organizations, building careers and living our lives well.

If you need help with employee engagement or any HR issue, just reach out — I’d love to chat!

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