How to Fail Better

By Brett Beasley

Failure can be a powerful source for learning, growth, and innovation. But in order to benefit from it, we have to learn to see it for what it is.

Failure

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This statement from Samuel Beckett’s “Worstward Ho” has become a favorite among both artists and entrepreneurs. Behavioral scientists might point out, though, that Beckett seems to be taking a lot for granted: He assumes that when we fail, we learn something.

But many psychological studies suggest that learning from failure is the exception rather than the rule.

Why We Fail to Learn From Failure

We expend much of our psychological energy maintaining a positive image of ourselves. As a result, we tend to recognize failures in other people, pay close attention to them, and remember them well. But when it comes to our own failures, we show less interest. We even engage in what researchers call “motivated false memory”: Our “selective amnesia” helps us forget our failures, and “confabulation” enables us to misremember them, adding a positive spin. Although this process is “motivated” by our need for self-enhancement, it happens without our full conscious awareness.

Some people are more motivated than others to maintain a positive self-image. A study of narcissism in entrepreneurs found that, although narcissistic tendencies might help entrepreneurs make the bold moves necessary for success in new ventures, narcissism also comes with a big drawback: It causes entrepreneurs to be less willing to learn from their failures.

When we don’t learn from our failures, we may maintain a positive image of ourselves in the short term. But we—and our organizations—miss out on the surprising benefits that come with failure.

Failure is a Valuable Resource

A group of researchers led by Ronald Bledow at Singapore Management University have found that “Drawing lessons from other people’s failures is a particularly effective but underused form of learning.” When study participants heard stories about failure (compared to success stories) they were more motivated to learn, and they retained more information as a result. Bledow and his team also found that our attitudes about failure matter: Study participants who saw failure as a valuable learning resource tended to learn more from failure stories.

Research on NASA missions has also documented similar effects on the organizational level. Scholars have concluded that organizations learn more effectively from failure than from success and also that an ability to learn from small failures is the most important factor in launching a mission safely and successfully.

As John Gordon has pointed out, failure can also be an asset in ethical development. When we are so afraid to fail we will avoid it at all costs, we are more likely to act unethically.

Put it in Practice

Define “Failure” Relative to Growth.

Leaders have the power to define what truly counts as a failure. Rather than contributing to your followers’ fear of failure, you can help create psychological safety. As Astro Teller, CEO of Google X, explains, “real failure is trying something, learning it doesn’t work, then continuing to do it anyway.” Because Teller asks his team to “work on big, risky things” he also prides himself on “mak[ing] it safe to fail.”

The kinds of failure Teller has in mind are what Amy Edmondson calls “complex failures” and “intelligent failures.” These failures result from productive experimentation and risk-taking in uncertain environments. Edmondson also points out, though, that while leaders should destigmatize this type of failure, they should also be very clear about which failures—including unethical behaviors—are “blameworthy.” Unfortunately, most managers fail to think about the difference between these two types of failure. As Edmondson explains:

I frequently ask manager, scientists, salespeople, and technologists around the world the following question: What percent of the failures in your organizations should be considered blameworthy? Their answers are usually in the single digits—perhaps 1% to 4%. I then ask what percent are treated as blameworthy. Now, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%!

For the relatively few failures that are truly blameworthy, punishment—even firing the party responsible—may be the best way to stimulate growth for the organization and everyone involved. As Edmondson explains, “A tough response is productive because it lets people know that the company is serious about its policies and values, which shapes future behavior, and because it constitutes a fair response to a stated violation."

But for failures that aren’t blameworthy, it can be a good idea to give growth-oriented feedback, and even reward employees for these failures. Google X provides bonuses to team members even when their projects fail, and Eli Lilly has hosted “failure parties” to recognize intelligent failures.

Adopt a Future Focus.

Often, when a failure occurs, managers get stuck in the past. Sometimes they rehash a situation with an employee in an attempt to gain agreement about what exactly happened and who was to blame. Research suggests that that dwelling on the past in this way can often be counterproductive. Employees and their managers each bring a different perspective, and both try to avoid blaming themselves for the mistake. 

Humanly Possible’s Jackie Gnepp along with researchers at the University of Chicago and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand recommend that managers state up front that they want to improve their employee’s future performance. (Example: “Taylor, I’d like to provide feedback that will be useful in preparing you for an eventual promotion to Regional Manager.”). When reviewing the past, they recommend sticking to the facts. (Example: “Your sales have been incredible; we’re all very proud of you…  Turnover of your direct reports is higher than we would like to see.”) They encourage managers to assume that their employees are motivated and competent enough to improve, and they suggest inviting employees to engage in a collaborative discussion about their future plans and milestones as well as solutions to any struggles or difficulties.

Share Your Failure Stories

As Bledow and his colleagues point out, managers “who have experienced failure firsthand may hesitate to share failure stories to avoid being viewed as incompetent.” This means that respected leaders with an established record of success are uniquely well-positioned to discuss their failures. They should recognize that “employees miss out on valuable learning opportunities if failure stories are withheld in their organization.” And they should set an example by sharing their failure stories openly.

For many years, NASA used "Failure is not an option" as an unofficial motto. But experience teaches us something different: Failure is inevitable. It is learning that is optional. And with a little encouragement and the right structures in place, more of your employees will choose it.
 

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