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Debra Stevens

Debra Stevens Training and Coaching Ltd

Director of training

Read more from Debra Stevens

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How L&D can promote a culture of positive failure

L&D must normalise failure at work – after all, the fastest way to succeed is to fail.

The hard truth is that there are two kinds of company cultures: those where people make mistakes, and those where people lie. The fastest way to succeed, however, is to fail, a lot! This is when we learn the most and grow the most.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
 – Thomas Edison

If businesses want to navigate the changes coming from the onset of automation and the fallout of a post-pandemic economy, they must encourage their people to develop a growth mindset and take responsibility for their own learning. This means creating a safe place to make mistakes and fail.

A culture of perfectionism drives mistake avoidance

There is a growing acceptance from leaders in business that failure is a prerequisite to innovation and that a breakthrough isn’t possible if risks aren’t taken. When things go wrong, we learn from those mistakes. Acceptance of failure is a very different thing at a personal level, however.

When it comes down to the individual there is an assumption that there will be a loss of esteem, credibility and stature, which could be seen as embarrassing at best, or career-damaging at worst. Fear of failure is real and debilitating at a personal level, so training people to develop a growth mindset and understand that it’s part of their development will be essential if businesses want to make the most of the opportunities that exist.

Start at the top

Step one has got to be taking a top-down approach by developing failure-tolerant leaders who will help their people overcome the inbuilt fear of failure and create a culture of smart risk-taking. Leadership training should focus on developing their ability to engage at a personal level with the people they lead. They need to learn how to give feedback in a non-judgmental, future-focused way, avoid unhelpful criticism, encourage their people to openly admit to mistakes and develop a growth mindset.

Leaders need to be encouraged to answer the following questions honestly and then design and develop their leadership style accordingly:

  1. Are you encouraging people to celebrate errors or to bury them?
  2. Does your team feel supported or afraid of being punished?
  3. Do you focus on finding the lesson or who to blame?

Fail fast, learn fast, adjust and grow

As learning and development professionals we also need to design training programmes that encourage individuals to fail. In the experiential training, we deliver we have the mantra ‘fail fast, learn fast, adjust and grow’. To do this, it’s essential to create a safe space that invites people to experiment where it feels safe to try new things.

There are two key areas that need focus if we want to encourage people to fail fast:

  1. Vulnerability: instead of training our people to act like robots and keep doing the same things in the same way, we need to encourage them to embrace and acknowledge their humanity, which includes emotions and flaws. You would think this would come naturally but from a very early age, we are taught to appear confident, be assertive and in control. Being vulnerable is something many of us will need to re-learn and practice – and that includes leaders, teams and individuals.
  2. Creativity is constantly being sighted as one of the most important skills for the 21st century, yet the processes that we put in place stifle creativity through the fear of failure. Dealing with such uncertain times requires adapting to an ever-changing dynamic reality and this will need innovation and risk-taking.

Creating a safe space

Below are some realistic and practical ideas to create a safe space in your training courses and in the working culture.

  • Give prizes for the best mistakes made.
  • Recognise and thank people for going for it and failing fast.
  • Practice appreciative enquiry – leading with questions about what has worked and what might be.
  • Reward effort as much, if not more than success.
  • Teach the power of ‘not yet’ – in other words, you don’t fail until you stop trying.
  • Don’t point fingers – in most cases pointing fingers just results in future lost opportunities to evolve.
  • Encourage the sharing of ideas and work early, one of the biggest reasons why failure should be encouraged is because it catches potential challenges early.
  • Communication is key – encourage openness, meaningful ‘feed forward’ communication, and real human vulnerability.
  • Lead from the front and own up to your own failures and be willing to show your own vulnerability.

As small children we learned from playing – our young brains adapted and grew through trial and error. We got on our bikes and fell off again and again, until the big moment of peddling down the road with shouts of encouragement from our parents. Somewhere along the line, we may have forgotten that it’s ok to fail, and maybe as leaders or trainers, we also forgot to offer those shouts of encouragement to others.

The best way for us to instil a growth mindset into learners is to normalise failure and show them its value. By accepting that it’s normal to fail or make mistakes, they can then learn that it is not an ending – rather, it is the beginning of learning.

Debra's book, Stand Out: 5 Key Skills To Advance Your Career is out now. 

Interested in this topic? Read Learning culture: why risk taking and failure are essential to progress.

Author Profile Picture
Debra Stevens

Director of training

Read more from Debra Stevens

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