Managers must rebuild and let employees fly after a failure

I was hoping to watch two baby robins grow up in the nest, but it's empty today. These parents will move on and try again. What obstacles are in your way of starting over?

I was hoping to watch two baby robins grow up in the nest, but it was not to be. Neither baby made it past two days after birth. These parents will move on and try again. Do you let simpler obstacles, with less weighty ramifications, stand in your way of trying again to do something significant?

This empty nest is a sign of failure. But it won’t stop these robins.

Just days ago, this nest held two eggs that had hatched into not-very-attractive creatures. Despite their homely appearance, I was looking forward to hearing sweet baby chirps and watching the day-to-day development of infant robins from the close vantage point of our deck, since the nest was perched right on the railing, hidden under heavy cover of our forsythia shrub. But it wasn’t to be.

For an unknown (to me) reason, the parents were unsuccessful at raising their young. Yesterday, I found one baby dead on the deck floor. I peered in the nest, to find it empty, and assumed the second one had likely become dinner for a larger bird. However, later in the day as I was trimming back the branches that have overgrown the corner of the deck, I found the second baby who had perished outside the nest and was left to rest under all the branches.

These parents had made their presence quite clear to us in the days leading up to the eggs hatching. When we were in the area, they loudly squawked from nearby trees, asking us to leave this sacred place. Experiencing the death of their young ones was traumatic for them, I’m sure.

Yet, I imagine that it in no way deters them from starting over. Why then, do we humans, find it so easy to give up in the face of much simpler obstacles — and ramifications — we face in order to reach our goals?

I had a conversation with a friend the other night and we talked about the number of times that highly capable people doubt their own ability to do things, even when others see it as a natural for them. I bet you’ve experienced that, too, with others and perhaps yourself.

When faced with adversity, we fall back on those stories in our head that say things like:

  • “I’ve never been good at ‘x'”
  • “Last time I tried that, I failed miserably.”
  • “I’m afraid to try because it seems so overwhelming.”
  • “Where would I start?”
  • “I’m afraid to make a mistake that big.”

Life is for learning. And if we aren’t stretching to do things new and different, challenging and invigorating, we’re missing the opportunity to reach our full potential. In organizations, there are lots of built-in barriers that prevent us from stretching. Things such as being in control, displaying the perception of confidence and knowledge, and avoiding mistakes that could be costly, both financially and to our egos. These are all opposing factors to trying new things.

That’s why it’s important for managers to create an environment for learning — and failing. Without it, everything, and everyone, becomes stagnant.

Maybe these robins will find a safer place for their next nest. Of course, it’s sad that little ones had to die for potential mistakes made by their parents. It’s also equally possible that this outcome had nothing to do with how or where they built the nest. That’s an important lesson for us to learn, too. Sometimes when we “fail” it has absolutely nothing to do with our actions; it could have been caused by factors beyond our control.

So pick yourself up, and try again.

What examples can you think of when you tried a second, third, (or even more!) times, with huge success? In fact, it’s unrealistic for us to expect perfection out of the gate. We often achieve our greatest accomplishments when we stick with something, learning and developing, modifying and improving along the way. Yet it’s often easier to give up. To think something is not possible. That’s why we need a supportive environment that allows the time and leeway to fail.

As managers, what specific actions do you take to encourage creative behavior? Do you actively promote and inspire new ideas? Or do just give it lip service, or worse, penalize those who seek a challenge? If you aren’t sure, ask your team what ideas they have to create the culture where they feel comfortable to fail. And let us know what you hear. We can all learn from this shared wisdom!

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