Failure is a long way from the catastrophe we are encouraged to see it as. Karen Meager and John McLachlan explain the learning opportunities it brings.

From early on in our lives we learn that failure is something we need to avoid, something deemed as unacceptable. So it is unsurprising that many people have a fear of failure and will act to avoid it at all costs, only pursuing opportunities if they are sure they will create a positive outcome.

The fact is these feelings are incredibly unhelpful in business. In reality, there will always be a degree of risk to secure the best outcomes. Being afraid of failure and its consequences will only stifle creativity and inhibit individuals from reaching their full potential. Here, we suggest how organisations can make friends with failure and view it as a critical opportunity to learn and move forward.

How do you define failure?

Failure is a loaded term often associated with feelings of frustration, sadness and disappointment. When broken down, however, failure is simply something that didn’t pan out as we expected – nothing more, nothing less. How we have been taught to feel about failure is what makes us feel shamed when it occurs, and these feelings need to be unpacked in order to move forward. By shaking our negative feelings around failure we become better leaders, for instance. If something doesn’t go to plan, it has less power to derail or demotivate us.

Some bosses take the view that failure is not an option. While this approach can help businesses to avoid setbacks, it can also stop any fundamental progress from occurring. By removing the element of risk from business, we prevent ourselves from attempting anything out of the ordinary. Instead of creating a working environment that promotes ideation and creative thinking, employees will be motivated by the fear of failure – which is definitely not as encouraging or effective as promoting flexible and forward-thinking.

Everyone will encounter failures along their journey. Some of the people we consider to be the most successful have had setbacks along the way. It is how they responded to failure that counts. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for a ‘lack of imagination’. Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her job as a news anchor as she wasn’t deemed ‘fit for television’. JK Rowling faced many rejections from publishers before securing a book deal. This is not the same as saying that we want to fail or no longer want to do a good job. It is more that approaching a task with the organising idea that it must not go wrong removes our focus from the end goal itself, clouding our judgement and encouraging us to only follow those paths that carry the least risk.

So, what is the best way to respond to a project that may not have gone to plan, a deadline missed or a client not won? Here are three alternative responses:

1. Remove scapegoating

Often a fear of failure can be a sign of a wider problem that requires attention – a blame culture. Within a blame culture, when the worst occurs, there is a rush to find someone or something to blame – as opposed to a team taking ownership of what has happened and using the experience as a vehicle for progress.

Similarly, some organisations will interpret any failures as a direct reflection of leadership ability. In reality, it is rare for there to be only one cause of failure, so instead of assigning blame, it is important that organisations and teams analyse and work through what happened with each other. If everyone feels comfortable in engaging in open discussions, individuals can progress their skills on a personal level as well as strengthening the team.

2. Learn the lessons

It is important to gain as wide an understanding of what occurred as possible, ensuring all valuable perspectives are brought together. Bringing together as many people involved in the project or event as possible is key. To ensure you avoid the ‘blame game’, focus meetings around why things did not work out as intended. Avoid focusing on particular individuals. Leaders facilitating discussions should steer them away from individuals and towards the event itself. Rather than blaming one department or another, for instance, you might consider a miscommunication or misunderstanding between parties.

Step back and see if you can see any themes, such as communication, relationships or processes, for example. This kind of information provides clues on those areas of the business that might require direct attention and will go a long way to ensuring the problem does not arise again. You now know which course of action is most beneficial for the future and that it was much more effective to take action, encounter failure and learn how to improve than stall and wait for a perfect, risk-free alternative to present itself – something that may never occur.

3. Embrace flexible thinking

Ditching the fear of failure makes us much more forward-focused and flexible in our thinking. When trying to find which solution is the best, it can be easy to become fixated on a course of action that we have invested all our attention in as being the best solution. However, it is important to remain open to other perspectives – you never know when one of these might actually provide better results. It is only when you make friends with failure that you will become open to all the avenues in front of you without fear of what might happen. You can then commit to a course of action, not simply because you think it carries the least risk, but because you think it will have the most beneficial outcome.

Making friends with failure is a critical skill for effective leadership. Failure can cause a variety of emotions, shame, disappointment and frustration, but by taking a step back we can see failure for what it really is: a learning opportunity and a chance to move ourselves, our teams and our businesses forward. Working through any failures with your team brings you together, hones your leadership skills and will ultimately bring you closer to your business goals.


Author: Karen Meager and John McLachlan, organisational psychologists.

Source: The Treasurer magazine