Failure can lead to wonderful things. Sure, nobody starts anything hoping to fail and nobody's happy with failure when it happens. Failure is useless if nothing is learned from it. And downright dangerous if it's never recognized or admitted.
But any failure presents a valuable opportunity to figure out what went wrong and why, and to improve the chances of success the next time. It's crazy to think that this concept applies to every living organism. It's not nearly as crazy to recognize the importance of this concept in a business context.
A leader's job is to manage failure. That is, to allow employees to get real experience and make their own mistakes without damaging the company in the process. Here are five lessons I've learned from the "F" word.
Loosen the Reins. I recently wrote about conflict that arises when a boss limits the autonomy of his or her employees. You might be retaining a certain level of control specifically to protect your employees and limit potential failure, but that's not allowing them to grow. Don't be afraid to expand roles and add responsibilities when appropriate.
Knowing your employee's thinking and behaving preferences makes this leadership easier. Preferences can indicate energy and motivation for a certain function. For example, if you're leading an employee with an Analytical thinking preference you can trust that they are likely to prioritize problem-solving, fact finding and data digging. Where you'll need to step in and keep the reins tight is in helping them break out of analysis paralysis and make a final decision.
Don't Penalize Failure. Nobody wants a "culture of failure" or to encourage employees to fail. Just the opposite--encourage your team to think big and take calculated risks. When something goes awry, the expectation is that they figure out why and be prepared to succeed the next time.
Remember that how you respond in these situations is critical and will send an important message to your team. As a leader, tune into the Social thinking part of the brain. You are the thermostat and need to read other people's cues as to how they're feeling after a failure. Likewise, the team will read your cues and respond the way you do. Self-awareness is the first step in sharpening your response skills, and staying positive paves the way for success next time.
Identify Opportunities. I don't suggest actively setting your employees up for failure with unrealistic expectations. Rather, watch for opportunities as they arise. If you're in contention to land a big client and it all depends on a perfect pitch and you know to a high degree of certainty that Jim does not yet possess the skills and experience to pull it off, you're not going to send Jim to do that job. But sending Jim to make an initial, low-risk sales pitch gives Jim valuable experience with very little downside.
Recognizing Failure. One can't learn from failure if there is no failure, and there is no failure if one doesn't recognize what the failure is. This only ensures that the failure will happen again and that no learning is occurring. The way you address it and discuss it with your employee should depend on their behavioral preferences. For example, those who fall in the first-third of expressiveness spectrum will prefer time to process the situation on their own before discussing it with you; whereas, those in the third-third of the expressiveness spectrum will likely appreciate talking through the situation with you since they prefer to externally process information.
Learn From It. It's one thing to say "I've got to do a better job." It's a completely different thing when you own it, drill down, and make whatever meaningful changes are necessary to succeed the next time. Take a cue from those with a Structural thinking preference and be sure to close the loop. Don't dwell on the failure that occurred, but rather think about what needs to be done differently the next time.
If failure offers such great opportunity and so many keys to success, is failure really failure? That's just a rhetorical question. May we all, in the process of doing, leading, and making, experience small doses of failure and learn a few lessons along the way.