I auditioned for a play a couple of weeks ago. I was awful. Gripped by a mind-numbing fear, my carefully rehearsed monologue slipped from my grasp. I froze, “took a big L”, as my kids would say. Yet I left the theatre exhilarated, energy coursing through my veins. What was all that about?
From Silicon Valley to the self-help bookshelves, embracing failure is the magic mantra. Fail fast! Fail again, fail better! So very easy to say: so very hard to do. Take a moment to think about the last time that you failed. Wasn’t great, was it? And yes, you bounce back and learn much. But it comes at such a cost. A cost to your energy levels, your self-belief, your very identity even. Small wonder we protect ourselves from feeling that way again. And the more senior and successful you become, the higher the stakes, and all the further to fall.
Yet we all know that nothing great ever came from playing it safe. Regret is expressed over the things we failed to do, rather than failed whilst doing. I espouse this often to teams that seek to become high-performing. And it was this notion that led me to “put myself out there”. A recent Hogan accreditation course had revealed my Dark-side tendency (i.e. stress behaviour most likely to impair my performance) to be “Cautious”. I play it safe. I don’t want to risk losing my reputation, or more accurately, my self-perception, for being “good at what I do”. The irony is that this caution will limit my ability to be just that. The audition was an attempt to conquer my caution by putting myself in the way of failure. It wasn’t a big risk. But it was enough to have my heart knocking in my ribs and to feel physically sick at the thought of rejection.
What then has this experience taught me about failure at work? Perhaps the following thoughts might be helpful to leaders seeking to create the conditions for failure.
Distinguish between good and bad failure. Is the difference between the two crystal-clear? “Good” failure comes from exploration, innovation, hypothesis-testing and is rooted in complexity. Whereas “bad” failure arises from repeated incompetence, inattention to results, lazy thinking or recklessness.
Create psychological safety. What are the consequences of failure? Do you have each other’s backs? Or is there a culture of blame and finger-pointing? How protective are you of your own reputation for success?
See failure as an event, not a person, to quote Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself. Can you help your team to separate out “this attempt failed” from “I am a failure”?
So next time you feel frustrated that your team won’t take risks, and you trot out the line “it’s ok to fail”, just remember how they see you react when things don’t go to plan. Consider what is at stake for them personally. And above all, ask yourself “When was the last time I put myself out there?”
Break a leg…as real actors might say!