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How Your Organisation Should View Failure

Chris Dyer
employees

When things go wrong, it’s natural for humans to grapple for control. Suppose you’re on skis, barreling down a snowy slope. You see a mogul and brace for the upward thrust – but you underestimate it. Your body can’t accommodate the gravity of the moment, and you face-plant. You made a mistake. You deal with the painful consequences. You’ll do better next time. Contributor Chris Dyer CEO – PeopleG2 and author of The Power of Company Culture.

Any job holds the potential for judgment errors, some with high stakes and some not. These generally don’t result in snow in your ears, but they do have something in common with skiing: if you don’t fall, you’re not learning.

Control versus Latitude
Practical business leaders understand that going for too much control over employees is self-defeating. Too many rules and regulations create scoff-laws. Too many punishments create an atmosphere in which people are afraid to do more than what’s in the job description, lest they screw up even while trying to do their best. This kills morale and the seeds of innovation, dragging down productivity and business growth.

That doesn’t mean we should accept all mistakes without comment. Repeat offenders who turn in bad numbers or alienate clients may be lazy or lacking in necessary skills, rather than just folks who make the occasional honest mistake. You can tell the difference—if you pay attention to circumstances and not just a need for compliance or perfection.

High standards for superior work are one thing; inability to accept some fault in human beings is another. If you are stuck on the low end of this equation, you’re the one who needs a time-out, not your employees. Avoid being labeled a control-freak boss, and revisit how your company deals with failure. Proactive organisations operate from a basis of trusting employees to do the right thing and then following up to ensure that they did.

Carrots Innovate, Sticks Just Hurt
So, what if a project fails or a judgment call misses? The control freaks tend to identify culprits and give them a public shaming, plus some sort of sanction. These “sticks” bludgeon errant employees into retreat, but don’t necessarily encourage them to do better. Instead of pointing fingers after a face-palm moment, try these either/ors to strike the right balance between being too harsh, too lenient, or just plain wishy-washy:

DON’T sweep the incident under the rug. DO let the whole team know about it in a diplomatic manner and invite suggestions on how to avoid a repeat.

DON’T outlaw behaviors in an attempt to prevent mistakes. DO identify missteps and propose alternative ways to arrive at better outcomes.

DON’T play the saint. DO admit your own failings, just as you expect others to do.

DON’T leave your people twisting in the wind when mistakes become public knowledge. DO stand behind the fact that they gave an honest effort.

DON’T obsess about what went wrong. DO talk about what went right, and at which point a step in a different direction might have brought success.

DON’T use termination as the only solution for employees’ failures. DO offer coaching, retraining, or pairing with a “buddy” for a probationary period.

DON’T consider mistakes the end of a short road. DO accept them as teaching and learning moments on the way to breakthroughs and innovation.

DON’T forget about failure once it’s been overcome. DO celebrate acing life’s moguls on the next try.

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