In my book, Friday Forward: Inspiration and Motivation to End Your Week Stronger Than It Started (Simple Truths, 2020), I give a blueprint to help readers build their capacity, achieve their goals, and inspire others to do the same. In this excerpt, I explain how to build intellectual capacity and set more fulfilling goals:
We all need room to make mistakes. The goal should be to learn from them and move forward, without repeating them. A company whose employees are constantly afraid of failing will only create subpar performance and significant problems in the future.
For an example of what happens when employees aren't free to fail, look no further than Volkswagen's 2017 diesel engine debacle. According to many company executives, former CEO Martin Winterkorn was demanding and authoritarian and abhorred failure; he also fostered a climate of fear.
A key part of Volkswagen's aggressive growth strategy was a new diesel engine that would deliver low emissions and high efficiency--an audacious achievement. The problem was that, as the engine came into production, it didn't meet the goals Winterkorn had publicly stated it would.
Too afraid to bring this failure to their boss, the engineers used their collective ingenuity to cover up the problem, leading to billions of dollars in losses and damage to the brand.
During tumultuous economic times, such as what we're currently facing, employees are more afraid than ever to make mistakes or preemptively report potential problems. While they aren't aiming to deceive company leadership, employees may decide to avoid bringing mistakes to their superiors' attention, in hopes that the problem can be solved without anybody knowing about it.
Nobody wants to have their mistakes spotlighted in an era marked by economic recession and layoffs. Leaders have to anticipate this fear and encourage the opposite: creating an environment where mistakes and failure are considered part of business, and instead pushing employees to be honest about their shortcomings and learn from them.
A great example of a leader embracing failure can be found in Ray Dalio's 2017 book, Principles. In it, Ray speaks about an expensive oversight that an employee made at his hedge fund and his decision not to fire the person. Ray believed that firing the employee would encourage others to conceal their mistakes out of fear.
Instead, Ray used the experience to create an "issue log" where all mistakes were reported and logged company-wide so others could learn from them. Now, making mistakes is not a fireable offense. However, failing to report a mistake is.
The concept of failure is a nuanced one with many cultural implications. But ask any successful person and they'll tell you how failure and learning from it contributed to their success. Sadly, so many leaders today are robbing their teams of this valuable experience.
In parenting, we see same principle constant: So-called helicopter parents may be well-intentioned, but they are grossly overreaching. Because they can't handle seeing their kids truly fail at something, they interfere in every area of their lives.
Leaders shouldn't be using this strategy in their organizations. Instead, they should give their employees the psychological safety to make mistake, and instead focus on helping the organization learn from these mistakes.
I strongly believe that this explicit and implicit discouragement of failure poses a serious and growing threat for the development of an entire generation. And I'm clearly not the only one.