Make it Safe to Fail

Have you ever seen someone’s spirit get crushed? I have. I can remember sitting in a fast food restaurant when I was young, when a young boy at a nearby table spilled his soft drink. His mother immediately reacted by loudly and harshly belittling him with her words, and by publicly humiliating him. He was visibly crushed. If he learned anything from that experience, it most likely was that accidents are unforgivable and should never happen. He learned that, in his world, it was not safe to make a mistake.

When people believe that it is not safe to make a mistake or to fail, they will stop putting themselves at risk. They will stop taking chances, putting in effort, and growing. Instead of taking a risk, or learning something new, or stepping up to the plate, they will revert to a place of self-preservation. They do this to protect themselves from the consequences that could come with failure, by removing the risk of failure altogether.

We need to remember that failure plays an important role in the development of leadership. In fact, it plays an important role in the development of all people. For that reason, leaders need to have the right perspective regarding failure, so that they can intentionally harness its power for good, and a right perspective on failure includes three important ideas.

  1. Failure is certain. We are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world. We each have particular strengths, but we also each have particular weaknesses. We learn by experience. This combination of ideas guarantees us that we will make mistakes, and that at some point, we will fail. You can see illustrations of this everywhere you look – babies learning to walk, teenagers learning to drive, students taking tests, professional football quarterbacks throwing interceptions, and countless other examples. The reality is that people make mistakes, and this will always be true. And while failures and mistakes sometimes have the potential to be fatal, generally failure is defeating only when you let it keep you down. As General George Custer once said, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how many times you get back up.”
  2. Failure is valuable. Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Clearly, he viewed every mistake, every setback, as a learning opportunity. That’s what makes failure valuable. It provides an opportunity to learn, to change, and to grow. By implication, if you don’t learn from your failures, you won’t change and grow; rather, you will continue to make the same mistakes. This differentiation is one of the attributes that characterizes leaders – they are able to learn from their mistakes and improve. However, the underlying context that makes this work is an environment that allows someone the opportunity to learn from mistakes. It only makes sense, then, that if it is not safe to make mistakes and learn from them, people will avoid behaviors that bring the possibility of failure, and therefore will miss the opportunity for growth that comes from those same failures.
  3. It can be safe to fail. Given both the certainty and the value of failure, it becomes important for leaders to cultivate a culture that makes it safe to try and fail, and there are three steps that can be taken that help to ensure this.
    • First, provide opportunities for people to try. Experience is such an important part of growth and development, but experience only comes when someone has the opportunity to try – to lead a project, manage a task, facilitate a discussion, plan an event, and so on. What we have to keep in mind is that (like a baby learning to walk) people will stumble in the process of learning something new and stretching themselves.
    • Therefore, the second step is to have a response that is instructive, not destructive. Use it as a teachable experience, one from which they can learn. Take time to evaluate the causes and contributing factors, the mistakes that were made, and provide guidance that will ultimate produce greater growth, confidence, and development.
    • Finally, the third step is to give people a chance to get back up after they have fallen, to “get back in the saddle” and try again. The goal is that they have learned from their failures and become more competent and skilled, which will be better for everyone. And if they don’t learn, then you have; you now know that they are beyond their limits of performance, at least at this point in their personal development, and therefore you, the leader, can choose to not give them those opportunities again.

President Theodore Roosevelt once declared, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much or suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” Failure is an important part of life. Make it safe for people to fail and then to learn.

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