Embrace Failure for Organizational Success

By Lindsay Macintosh Feb 17, 2016
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Encouraging creativity, taking risks, trying new things and being open to new ideas are all key to​ organizational success.

So is a willingness to embrace failure.Failure is not necessarily negative. Instead, it is a fundamental component of success. Failure can contain many shades of gray, but there is nearly always a silver lining.

Success Is Not Black and White

Some organizations hold that a culture of success is one in which things must always run smoothly, with minimal or no mistakes. As such, they adopt a more divisive black-and-white approach to defining success and failure. 

This approach hinders employees as well as organizational development. Employees become risk-averse, face anxiety and fear, and want to hide their mistakes, resulting in a stagnant culture with low employee engagement and poor morale as well as high turnover and significant absenteeism. Organizations would be wise to accept and address failures at certain levels, learn from them, and move on without demoralizing and punishing employees.

Of Compliance and Retention

Brenda Rigney, vice president of People Operations at Earls Restaurants, which has 65 locations in Canada and the United States, sees retention as the ultimate workforce problem. Turnover often arises from a culture where, rather than being tolerated, failure results in employee discipline.

“Who would want to work for a company that makes you feel bad about your decisions and actions or that watches every move you make?” Rigney asks. “The environment becomes transactional vs. transformational. Compliance prevails over empowerment.”

She notes that employers must move to transform this type of culture before it begins to weaken innovation and breed mistakes, theft, fraud and negative employer branding.

Cultures that Embrace Failure Succeed

Organizations that adopt failure into their cultures value processes more than—or as much as—end results. They are more concerned about why the end result occurred and view risks as essential in today’s highly competitive global economy. With failure built into their cultures, these organizations see that risks do not have to be “all or nothing.”

Within such organizations, leaders and managers:

  • Foster a collaborative environment wherein failure offers valuable learning opportunities.
  • Encourage risk-taking, knowing that some ideas will not work out.
  • Recognize that mistakes can be seen as opportunities for employees to become more aware.
  • Use these opportunities to discuss how things should or could work differently.
  • Celebrate wins and losses.
  • Create avenues for feedback, such as the company intranet and blog posts that ensure a two-way communication system between employees and management.
  • Hold face-to-face meetings with employees and management to discuss information on topics such as innovation, relationships, and learning and growing.

Failing Is Learning; Knowing Is Growing

Today’s successful organizations see failure as a teaching opportunity. It could involve mentoring new employees, holding debriefing sessions or providing training in a specific area where the failure occurred. Most important, failure should be explored and seen as an opportunity for everyone to learn and benefit.

A culture that embraces failure promotes ongoing feedback, open communication channels and good listening skills. This way, employees feel able to approach their supervisors or managers before a minor mistake leads to a major disaster.

Empowering Employees to Innovate

“We value innovation and creativity,” Rigney says. “We encourage every leader and partner—our hourly employees—at Earls to operate their role with an ‘it’s your business’ philosophy. We teach people how they can manage their business and encourage them to try new initiatives to drive their business. We recognize that some ideas will work and some won’t. But it’s about changing quickly. We have great stories, such as a dishwasher creating a new system to organize cutlery that increased productivity of our front-house team.”

She adds, “Our ‘it’s your business’ philosophy is applicable to all levels of employees in the company. We don’t talk about repercussions or consequences. This is integral to our business. 

We empower people to make a call that will keep a guest coming back to the restaurant. Afterward, the leader and partner will recap what occurred with the guest and the decision the partner made. They will review processes and use the ‘mistake’ as a teaching opportunity.”

Organizations that take a black-and-white approach to addressing failure leave no room for such experimentation. Unfortunately, this leads to risk-averse, noncollaborative behaviors that stymie opportunities for innovation and creativity.

To stay relevant in our competitive economy, where ideas are invaluable, organizations must foster a culture of experimentation in which failure is acceptable—so long as the intentions are relevant and employees learn something from the experience. At a core level, organizations need to “factor failure” proactively by working it directly into their business plans. Organizations that neglect to see failures as opportunities for growth will ultimately find their failures ending poorly.

Lindsay Macintosh, CHRP, is a Vancouver, Canada-based HR consultant with more than 20 years of experience in payroll and benefits in the retail, food service and logging industries. Republished by permission from the World Federation of Personnel Management Administrators.

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