Why Leaders Should Embrace Failure

You failed! This is still one of the most negative things you can say about yourself and about others. Yet, it is a fact that failures provide us with some of the most important learning – and that they are necessary for our growth as a company, as an institution, and as a human being. The challenge is that failures are emotionally highly explosive.

Albert Einstein said: “The only source of knowledge is experience”. We learn about the world and ourselves through our experience. And it seems that we learn the most from the experience of failure. But why is that? Well, largely it has to do with our motivation to change. Researchers call this effect of failure a “learning readiness”.

Backup your data. You know, of course you should do it. Yet it is not until you loose data, you really KNOW it. When you have this deep urge to slam your head against the wall because you didn’t do the backup and lost days of work and precious data, then you understand it in a way that will make a lasting impact on your future behavior. You are ready to learn.

When you are preparing for your first marathon, first swimming contest, first whatever sports event, you know the importance of training. The more you skip your training sessions, the more it will hurt on the big day. Yet, we somehow never mange to fully imagine the pain we have to go through when we fail to properly train, and how we just want to throw up when we are fighting those last infinite meters of a race.

And what we knew before intellectually, we now understand down to every bone in our body. We are ready for change.

Or think about the sales presentation that failed because we weren’t properly prepared. How we walk out of the meeting with an unpleasant gut feeling that our message didn’t come across as we wanted it to.

But it is exactly in those situations where we fail that we can improve learning, change our behavior and grow as human beings.

Unfortunately, this is not how it is being treated. Failure is emotionally high-explosive in most companies and relationships. If people fail today, the best thing they believe they can do is to duck. Be silent about it. Don’t tell.

And this is the case even though we know that some of the most successful people ever, failed and learned from it. Henry Ford went bankrupt twice before striking gold with Ford Motor Company, Steve Jobs failed at Apple and NeXT computer before rejoining Apple and making it the largest IT company in the world. And let’s not forget the famous Michael Jordan quote: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”.

Big failures come from small failures
Not all failure is good, though. Obviously. Think of the BP oilspill, the Columbia shuttle tragedy, the Air France Concorde crash. We are not looking for those kinds of catastrophes. But guess what. Big failures don’t come out of nowhere. They often grow out of a long list of failures, starting in the small. Just as in this rhyme.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Small failures are often the ‘early warning signs’ which, if detected and addressed, can avoid the catastrophic failures they might otherwise turn into. If we learn from the small failures we can avoid the bigger ones. Some talk about intelligent failures: Failures where expectations were not met, but something useful was learned for the future.

But here’s the catch. Research shows that failures are associated with negative emotions, such as pain, remorse, shame, humiliation, anger, guilt, and blame. And it also shows how such negative emotions can adversely affect learning. That is the paradox: Failure represents both an opportunity to learn and a context in which it is difficult to do so.

This is why leaders don’t walk around their offices asking employees, what they failed at doing? (and what they learned from it?). This is why spouses, don’t ask their better half what they messed up today (and what opportunity for growth it gave)? And this is why parents, don’t ask their kids what they failed at today? (And how could it work out next time?).

But we all should!

So how can we learn from failure?

1. Avoid blaiming. Build a trusting culture, where people are not shamed for being open about failures, but rewarded. Teach employees to give and receive feedback.

2. Talk about it. Bring failures out in the open. Don’t avoid or conceal even minor failures. It is about addressing failures and learning from them before they turn into crisis. Ask your employees about their failures on a weekly basis. Share your own failures and learnings from them. What went wrong at the sales meeting, presentation, software update? Encourage the sharing of those stories and what was learned among employees.

3. Employ counterfactual thinking (CFT). Imagine ‘what might have been’ by reflecting on alternative outcomes.
The ability to openly talk about failure and learn from them in a company is increasingly being recognized as a critical success factor, a source of growth, and an opportunity to leap ahead of competitors. We must experience failure in order to learn the most important lessons not only in business, but in life.

Learn to fail – and don’t fail to learn when it happens.

D. Ucbasaran et al.: Life after business failure: The process and consequence of business failure for entrepreneurs, Journal of Management, 2013
A.C. Edmonson: Strategy for learning from failure, Harvard Business Review, April 2011


Mette Vesterager is a senior innovation manager. Combining 12+ years of business experience with philosophy and psychology studies, she also writes about Innovation & Leadership at . Twitter: vesteragerm.

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