Allow people to fail
It was with some embarrassment that I entered my local bike store. I had endeavored to adjust the seat angle on my new bike, but had ‘burred’ the bolt to the point it was now immovable. I had made what should have been a simple job, into one that was much more complicated.
The bike mechanic ended up having to drill the problem bolt out. He was very good about it though, telling me a story of how he had done something similar.
How are you in allowing yourself and others at work to fail? I would suggest that there are some good things that can come out of ‘failures’, provided that nobody has died, of course.
- In every failure, there is an opportunity to learn. I remember a speaking colleague who I had turned to for support after a less-than-stellar presentation I did some years ago. He said, “Ken, you don’t learn much from the good presentations. The real learning comes from when things go badly.”
Though I sometimes think there must be easier ways to learn, if we are going to experience adversity, we may as well at least bring something good out of it. My lesson from the bike affair? Play to my strengths and leave the mechanical work to the experts!
- Responding well builds a credit in the working relationship. Responding with kindness, empathy and sometimes, forgiveness, to someone who is vulnerable tends to be seen very favorably. It is like a deposit in the emotional bank account of that relationship.
One manager I know communicates frustrations and disapproval to her colleagues on an ongoing basis. There are the sighs, the eye-rolls, and the “Didn’t I tell you …” comments.
Another manager I know responds with understanding that some days are going to go better than others or tells a story about an even bigger mistake she has made. You can guess which manager is well regarded by their team members.
- They will return the kindness. Being kind to others encourages reciprocity. I recall one occasion when, employed as a telephone counsellor, I took it upon myself to visit a client at their home. I had good reason, of course. But this was a significant departure from usual workplace policy, an action that put myself in a vulnerable position.
When I later told my manager, I only remember him affirming my motivation. Somehow, he must have also let me know that next time, I really should discuss with him first. His kindness and understanding certainly helped me to ‘cut him slack’ when he was having a bad day - and there were a few of those!
- Being allowed to fail encourages initiative. Can you imagine how you would feel about showing initiative at work, if you are later criticised by your manager for actions you have taken. Next time your manager asks for a volunteer to take on responsibility for a project, you may well be reluctant to put your hand up.
If you want to encourage people to show initiative, you have to allow people to make mistakes or do things their way. Even though you may well have been able to do the job better, people have to be allowed to learn as they go.
- Sometimes, it is not failure.Often, what we think is failure, has another explanation. A team member not acting in a certain way may have been due to a communication breakdown or personal problems they are having.
When a team member does not perform as they should, be curious and ask them to help you understand why they took the actions they did. You may well find that there were very good reasons for them to act the way they did.
Of course, there are some challenges at work that you simply cannot ignore or reframe.
And ongoing poor performance, where lessons are not being taken up, requires other actions. Challenges certainly arise when we, or a colleague, are slow to embrace the lessons and keep repeating the same mistakes.
Sometimes, it is easier to cut other people slack than it is to allow ourselves to be imperfect. We need to ease up on ourselves. Failure is not always a bad thing.
Given that we are all human, and are going to make our share of mistakes, we may as well bring something good out of them. There is an upside to failure after all.