Why It’s Good To Be Bad

Innovators and philosophers have been advocating the value of failure of centuries. The inventor Thomas Edison made a much-quoted observation on the topic when he said: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” 

Nevertheless, while we are repeatedly reminded of the usefulness of learning from mistakes, and the vital role that failures play in success, the idea that failure is a good thing has never truly caught on.

This is hardly surprising given the short shrift that history, popular culture and company management teams give to losers. How many statues are dedicated to generals who were soundly defeated in battle, for example? How many television documentaries are devoted to sports teams that played dismally in major tournaments? How many people still have a job when they have presided over a project that has cost their organization vast amounts of money, but has apparently contributed nothing of value except “learning”? 

The reality is that rather than valuing failure, society teaches us to despise it. That’s why we do our best to avoid mistakes at all costs. Rather than a litany of “learning experiences”, what we would much prefer – or what we think we would prefer – is plenty of success, ideally achieved overnight. We would like to have perfect careers, homes, relationships and children without having to go to the trouble of getting things wrong now and again.

So how can HR professionals help us to beat our addiction to success in a world that requires people to experiment and wrestle with the challenges that it presents?

“The fact is that without some form of failure, there is no success,” says Alice New,

learning and development coach at online training company GoodHabitz. “Without mistakes, we can’t learn and yet society still has such a negative attitude towards failure at any level. This needs to change if people are to continue learning and growing as individuals, and HR has a role in helping to facilitate ‘good failure’ inside organizations.”

The problem with perfectionists

New believes that if organizations want to encourage innovation and creativity, their HR professionals need to help their staff become better at failing. “For people to learn to feel comfortable with errors, HR needs to help them understand what they’re frightened of in the first place,” she says.

New continues: “Most people who are frightened of failing will describe themselves as ‘perfectionists’, but ‘protectionists’ is probably a better name for them. They strive for perfection because they want to avoid disapproval, criticism and any embarrassment that comes with it. Other people who strive for perfection may do so because they don’t understand that ‘good enough’ is just what it means. They haven’t appreciated that when they strive to be the best, there is a point when the relationship between perfection and effectiveness starts to decline and the results will suffer.”

It seems that having spent years developing cultures where people have been urged to excel and strive to “be the best”, organizations have somehow created working environments that do not convey to employees what it means to be “good enough”. “This is stifling innovation,” says New. “Having high standards is essential, but it could also be inhibiting the potential for growth. As leading organizational psychologists have shown, not talking about mistakes is counterproductive because if a mistake goes unreported, it means a co-worker will miss the chance to avoid making it, too.”

In fact, there are a number of reasons why allowing people to fail is actually good for business. It encourages them to become more creative at solving problems because they seek out new insights and find new ways to assess opportunities. It also builds resilience by helping people to become more emotionally mature. Another consideration is that there is an endearing element to failure. Overcoming failure makes a person more interesting and likeable than someone who doesn’t have to make an effort to succeed. 

So how can HR help line managers to establish a culture that banishes blame with the aim of promoting innovation? Here are New’s suggestions:

  • Support line managers with initiatives that stretch their team members and provide opportunities for growth. “This approach might not be suitable for every employee,” says New, “but many will welcome the chance to leave their comfort zones in a supportive environment. For these initiatives to be effective, it is key to make it the norm to take on something challenging and for people not to be ‘punished’ if it all goes wrong. At the outset, line managers and team members should evaluate likely outcomes and obstacles and track them throughout the project to maximize learning opportunities.”
  • Reward people for their successes, but also promote risk-taking and innovation. “One good way to do this is with an innovation award program,” suggests New. “Rather than focusing only on commercial success stories, include a category for risk-taking and the depth of lessons learned. It’s a powerful way of signalling to the organization that risk-taking is acceptable and that, in fact, failure will be rewarded. If every line manager is supporting stretch projects, there will be plenty of potential entries.”
  • Encourage managers at all levels to lead by example, own up to making mistakes and admit when they were wrong. “Humility is one of the most important aspects of good leadership today,” argues New. “Actively use error management to identify the causes of a mistake rather than point fingers at the person who caused it. To develop a culture where error management becomes the norm, hold review meetings in an open, judgment-free forum, where people can openly discuss projects and what could be improved upon. This will help to create a strong feeling of cohesion across the organization and encourage openness and learning.”

Organizations are slowly coming around to the idea of failures being a good thing, although there is still plenty of progress to be made in this area. An open culture is fundamental to encouraging greater risk-taking, however. Leaders need to celebrate both the successes that risk-taking brings and, even more importantly, the lessons to be learned from the inevitable failures that come with it.

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I am a business and finance journalist who writes about a wide range of topics from artificial intelligence, careers and diversity through to banking, treasury and wealt...