Failure hides a provocative lie and what you can do about it.

It is applauded as the best teacher and also as the source of one of our greatest fears. We have all heard the adage “we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes,” and most people I’ve encountered would agree with that. We know that failure is a part of the experience of gaining, well, experience. Good judgment comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment.

But failure is not a widely accepted or respected part of the human experience. We stigmatize failure. That’s because we are also taught that “failure is not an option.” And only the people with the courage to stand strong in the face of certain judgment feel comfortable failing again and again.

Failure's provocative lie

As part of the survey I give before my workshops, I ask attendees “what holds you back professionally?” The number one answer? You guessed it: fear of failure.


Which leads me to failure’s provocative lie: that we shouldn’t talk about it and we should be embarrassed of it. The truth is, that viewpoint is a productivity-and-creativity-killing, soul-sucking falsehood that has to end. How’s about that for direct?

Since we won’t talk about it, and think we should be embarrassed by it, we cannot learn from others’ mistakes. We have to learn from our own. If we agree that we learn more from our failures than our successes, and it’s also the number one thing holding us back, shouldn’t we talk about that? Shouldn’t that be, not only a discussion worth having, but the most critical discussion to have? Shouldn’t that be the point of the event and not just the discussion you have with coworkers and friends at the happy hour after? And aren’t the stories of your best failures far more interesting than your stories of success?

Imagine how much more freeing it would be if we didn’t struggle with the fact we might fail, but instead knew with great certainty that we could make mistakes and life would go on? Actually, let me rephrase that: I should say if we remembered that we’ve already made mistakes, and life has gone on. And you survived. And yes, if you’re in a field where failure has life or death consequences, this can be a tough concept to embrace, but the fact is to innovate and free up your workforce to perform at its highest potential, we must destigmatize failure to reduce the fear and empower our teams. Failure is a great teacher (or can be) and embracing it is an integral part of innovative cultures and enlightened leaders.

Many of our most important personal and professional discoveries have come on the heels of failure. Failures can be the beginning of great success. And we can learn from each other’s failures. We know that “we don’t want to make a mistake like that” because we’ve seen or heard someone else go through it. That means we should share these lessons with each other so we all fail less. We should talk about it. We should destigmatize it. 

8 ideas to destigmatize failure

How to do that you ask? Well, here are a few ideas to get you started:

·      Change the narrative. You are not “a failure.” You “have failed.” There’s a big difference. And we all fail. Failure is not a fault in you, it is a fact of life.

·      Create an innovation fund to mitigate personal and organizational risk. Set a success rate of 70% for new ideas and require results to be tracked accurately. Talk about what worked and what didn’t after a pilot program ends. Talk about the failures. If we are not failing, we are not pushing the boundaries.

·      Discuss failure of the heart versus failure of the head. Failure of the heart is never right—it’s being immoral or violating ethics and that’s never okay. That’s a “bad” failure. But the failure of the head is taking calculated risks and making strategic errors—then learning from them. That’s a “good” failure. And we don’t punish good failure.

·      Peel away at perfectionism. Progress over perfection should be the mantra for most work situations. In high-performing cultures, perfectionism can prevent progress because of the fear of failure. Work at stopping perfectionism as an organizational driver.

·      Conversely, talk with your team about how accurate measurement is expected. If people are afraid to fail, there are incentives to cheat on performance to not lose (or not measure at all), and that’s going to prevent you from performing your best. To perform our best, we need goals we measure accurately. We need to know whether we are winning or losing. Sometimes we don’t hit the targets and that’s okay, but we must measure our performance to know. And we will succeed far more than we fail.

·      Don’t sugarcoat it or minimize it. I’ve seen people bend over backward to avoid using the word failure by calling it “learning opportunities” or “teachable moments” and that’s true that failure can be, but it is also a failure and that’s okay to say too.

·      Remember, people don't think about our failures nearly as much as we do. In most cases, it's okay to move on.

·      Create an intentional opportunity at work to talk about or celebrate failure. Create a “pocket of positivity" where people can talk about it. Create the Kobayashi Maru awards. Have fun with it.

Failure happens. Failure is part of life. And if we talk about it intentionally, factor it in, don’t ignore it and even celebrate it, we can stop the cycle of shame that comes with the “fear of failure” and stop the number one thing holding us back at work.

Isn't it time we work to Fail Up together by sharing the stories of our failures and encouraging others to do the same? We can and should learn from each other. We can change the narrative, together.

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