We've been told over and over again that screwing up is a natural part of the creative process. So, then, what happens to innovation when workers feel that failure is something to bury in the closet under the winter coats and dust bunnies? 

A new survey from Ernst & Young (EY), conducted by ORC International, polled more than 1,000 workers. It found that just one in four (25 percent) entry-level workers feel their organizations actually tolerate failure. Yet nearly half of senior executives (44 percent) say they do. That perception of intolerance might be the root cause of a massive innovation gap, since workers have to feel that flubs are welcome before they'll stick their necks out to promote out-of-the-box concepts. The survey also found, for example, that

  • While nearly all (96 percent) of senior executives think their companies offer ways to introduce new ideas, only 55 percent of entry-level workers agree.
  • 57 percent of senior executives think their businesses foster a culture of innovation, but only 26 percent of entry-level workers agree.
  • 91 percent of senior executives said they celebrate new ideas internally, compared with just 54 percent of entry-level workers.
  • 98 percent of senior executives think workers are adapting to the quick pace of business disruption, while just 73 percent of entry-level workers think this is true.

Two contributing problems

Michael Inserra, EY Americas senior vice chair and deputy managing partner, says that as businesses struggle to keep up with customer preferences and new technologies that shift at the drop of a hat, leaders might be playing catch-up regarding managing and inspiring their workforce. And let's just admit it. Money is tight. Fear of someone else stealing a job makes people even work through lunch. Nobody feels like it's OK to ignore after-hours work email anymore. If ever workers have needed inspiration from executives to escape the weight of it all, it's now.

But another part of the problem is the system of rewards and recognition that's engrained into our understanding of success. This starts early on, even in school, with getting A's meaning you have the "right" answers.

"Getting promoted at work generally means you have achieved success through accomplishments, not failure," says Inserra. "These indications often send the message across organizations that, according to those set standards, we are performing well."

Hurting stability and personal well-being in one blow

Inserra says that despite the fact there's not always a defined path forward in the new world as it presents all types of unique challenges, leaders continue to stick with status quo organizational effectiveness. That puts companies at significant risk of higher turnover--the survey found that 69 percent of workers would leave for a company better known in the market for innovation, all other elements such as pay being equal.

And while Inserra points out that failure doesn't necessarily mean poor performance, Marissa King, professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management, has concerns about how feeling that failure isn't an option could influence workers. A pressure toward perfection, she says, could lead to excessive stress, increased anxiety, depression, and isolation.

"Acceptance that we are all human and experience failure and setbacks is critical to preventing burnout, encouraging creativity, and promoting team performance," says King. "Studies in companies ranging from Google to health care teams have consistently found that psychological safety--a belief that team members won't be punished or shamed for making a mistake--is a key ingredient to high-performing teams. Failure is critical for learning."

Creating the trust necessary to try

Inserra asserts that to really encourage creativity and discourage great talent from leaving, executives can't continue to let "fail forward, fail fast" be an empty sentiment. Instead, they need to let workers "educate up" through techniques like reverse mentoring.

It is not only an individual's right to share new ideas, but it is their responsibility to do so. With business competition greater than ever, the message from leadership needs to be: take calculated risks, work with great agility, and if you make mistakes--which will happen--learn from them. 

Leaders should help to ensure the professional growth and development of their people by providing the right coaching and upskilling opportunities. You want your team's skills to evolve with the changing business landscape.

While failure is an essential part of innovation, so is accountability. Organizations should be clear about the culture of innovation they want to create, including how they define it, what they want from their people, and how this will be factored into performance.

King agrees that the solution ultimately has to come from the top, rather than from the entry-level employees.

"The problem really lies with management," she says. "It is extremely difficult for employees to create an environment where learning from failure is encouraged and psychological safety exists. Cultural change has to come from management, and managers need to model behaviors that show vulnerability and a willingness to fail forward."

So in this context, let's be very clear. You might never get to the point where the perceptions of your C-suite and lower-tier workers line up 100 percent. But if you hope to at least decently close the gap, your pride and the urge to let competition trump connection have to hit the chopping block yesterday. Those two hindrances probably tear down trust more than any other difficulties that might exist in the business landscape. Once you've taken the blinders off and embraced a little more connection and humility, you'll likely get that innovation boost you're after.

Published on: May 28, 2018