The gift of failure: why allowing your employees to fail is an investment

The gift of failure: why allowing your employees to fail is an investment

In some corporate cultures, when someone makes a mistake, a torrent of negativity is unleashed. Thoughts swirl fast and furious: Just how big was my mistake? Will it cost the company a client? Will it cost the company money? Am I going to get canned? Should I pass the buck? Who should I point the finger at?

This sort of thinking kicks off a vicious cycle that leads to low employee morale and CYA-spurred backstabbing among co-workers who should be behaving as teammates.

Today’s employees are not only expected to be expert multi-taskers, they’re also expected to go above and beyond the call of duty. While technology has made many jobs easier, smartphones and laptops mean that work can be portable and employees can be “on-call” at all hours of the day without getting to have some much-needed downtime.

With so much demanded of employees today, someone is bound to make a mistake. No one can be 100% on all of the time. We’re only human and everyone makes mistakes. No one intends to make a mistake, but if a workplace culture is a culture of fear rather than a positive work culture of growth, only negativity can come from the experience of failure.

An Honest Mistake

For some companies, particularly those tied to the manufacturing of products that impact people’s daily lives – such as the food and beverage industries and pharmaceuticals space – failure to adhere to regulations and standard quality procedures can cost people their lives. However, many desk jobs don’t necessarily have as profound an impact on daily lives – yet the pressure to go, go, go is continuously on.

A study conducted over the course of 20 years by Tory Higgins of Columbia University conducted research over the course of 20 years, studying risk-averse people. Through his findings, Higgins came to the conclusion that people who are risk-averse are highly goal-oriented, yet prefer to maintain the status quo. These individuals would rather not rock the boat.  They’re happy to keep things rolling along as they are, playing it safe without taking a risk to see if there’s a better way to do things. Failure would upset the apple cart and, frankly, risk-averse people have no time for that.

But what would happen if we all just let things stay the way they are? Nothing would get better. In fact, stagnation can make output worse. While many businesses are keenly focused on the bottom line, they often lose sight of the human element. That it’s people who propel their company forward. People with new ideas and hopes, dreams, and personal lives all their own. If people are not happy at their jobs or live in fear for them, it impacts their productivity. In fact, a 2011 Gallup-Healthways study revealed that unhappy employees cost companies $300 billion each year in lost productivity.

Failure Can Be a Great Teacher

If employees knew that failure would not be met with a stern reprimand, it could help to improve morale. Rather than pointing the finger at an employee, management can use failure as an opportunity to re-evaluate processes and efficiency. Why make employees work harder when you can make sure they work smarter instead? Failure does not have to be a death knell for a career or a business. Rather, it can be transformed into a learning opportunity.

Some of the greatest business leaders behind successful companies met with failure on their journey to the top. Bill Gates of Microsoft, Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines and Virgin Records,  Colonel Harlan Sanders of KFC, and Akito Morita of Sony all met with failures early in their business ventures.  These men learned from their past mistakes to build better products.

In fact, Richard Branson had this to say about failure: “Many venture capital investors evaluate potential partners on how they reacted to a failed business, seeing it as a test of character, rather than a mark against them. The key to bouncing back is to learn whatever lessons you can from the experience so that you can avoid making the same mistakes in the next launch. This will help you to overcome your fear, take a leap of faith and try again.”

Failure can be a great teacher. Employees who learn from failure, rather than fear it, are more likely to share their knowledge with others and foster a positive corporate culture that involves teaching new employees about lessons learned, and helping current employees stay on and innovate.