Teaching the Team to Fail

A while ago, I read a quote by American psychologist B.F. Skinner that really spoke to me. Both as an individual and as a leader. It said: “A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”

As leaders, we will face failure at some point. It’s not a question of “if”. It’s truly a question of “when”. And when that time does arrive, what lessons will you be teaching your team by your behavior?

The Need to Learn Lessons from Our Failures

The first thing that we need to consider is recognizing the actual need to learn lessons from our failures.

How are you role modeling that?

To start to learn from our failures, we have to own them. We have to accept our part in that failure.

There are some leaders who immediately look for someone else to blame. Although there may be times when those leaders truly had no part at all in this failure, we need to be careful of the knee-jerk reaction of looking for others to blame.

Start by looking inward. Start by investigating your own role in that failure.

Another aspect that we can role model is that failure can be a powerful deterrent. If we accept our role and we fully integrate that, we may become so invested in it never happening again, that it will motivate us even more. And this can move us in the right direction.

Extending Ourselves and Others Some Grace

I have yet to meet that perfect individual who has never, ever made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. Show how to extend yourself some grace during these frustrating times. There’s no need to lose our temper, to call ourselves names, to blame ourselves with vigor.

That same grace needs to be extended to others. As leaders, even when we truly had nothing to do with the failure, we tend to be the ones who have to, in some capacity, deal with the consequences and act on that. When approaching those who were involved, try to remember your own mistakes.

Again, everyone fails at some point. Think about mistakes that you've made and the times when somebody else extended grace to you. Keep those times in mind when you're approaching somebody else to discuss their mistakes and extend them some grace as well.

Of course, we can allow ourselves to be disappointed, maybe even angry, but staying in that space, staying in that emotional ugliness for any extended period of time, doesn't advance anything. And it's certainly not teaching the team about dealing with the emotion and moving on.

Also in the spirit of extending ourselves some grace, remember that there are times when our best was never going to be enough. “It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances.”

Sometimes, there was nothing else we could have done. We did everything right. Everything by the book. And all the information that we had led us to that decision. And it just was never going to be enough.

The Power of Reframing

If we're always staying safe, if we're always playing within this certain zone, if we're always avoiding risks, we cannot possibly grow as individuals or as professionals. And our team won't grow either. And we’ll end up teaching the team to never take a risk.

We need to reframe that idea that failure is something to be avoided at all costs. I'm not saying let's head full speed toward failure. But I am saying let's not be so afraid of it that we won't take any risk at all. Ever.

Failing means we tried something. Take comfort in the fact that you tried.

Your Reaction Will Dictate the Future

Whether it’s a team failure, a team member’s failure or our own as leaders, how we react will dictate future responses. Do you want a team who will scramble to cover a mistake? Do you want a team who is afraid and will throw others under the virtual bus to save themselves? Do you want a team who blows up at themselves, at others, when something doesn’t go according to plan? And, as we know, that happens a lot! Ensure it serves a purpose and transform it into a lesson learned.

Next time there’s an incident, take a moment to consider what your behavior is teaching the team about failing.


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