Managers need to provide a culture that accepts (some) failure

Taking risks is necessary but often stifled in organizations

Grace is not a risk-taker. But she followed a scent into territory she would not normally traverse. We knew the snow and ice was strong enough to hold her, but did she? Or did she barrel through because her goal was more important than the obstacle?

Grace is not a risk-taker. But last weekend, she followed a scent into territory she would not normally traverse. We knew the snow and ice was strong enough to hold her above the flowing river beneath her, but did she? Or did she barrel through because she found the goal more exciting than the obstacles? (And yes, there really is that much snow still here!)

No matter what your job is, there are risks that you will face. How you handle those risks ultimately affects the quality of your performance.

Do you take an appropriate level of risks? Do you encourage risk-taking? Or do you suppress it? Are you so risk-averse that it prevents you, and others, from moving forward?

How do you know what is the best course of action?

There is never an absolute correct answer for that question. But there are ways that you can feel more confident in how to approach the options.

Taking risk means being vulnerable. Most of us are taught that being vulnerable, that act of exposing our shortcomings, is a sign of weakness. In my opinion, this is especially true in our workplace environments. There is a pervasive culture in organizations that employees should be confident, skilled, and knowledgeable.

We want employees to ‘hit the ground running’ and work at a fast-pace with high-quality outcomes — always! It’s not very comforting to managers when employees say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” yet that might be the most helpful words they could voice, in order to move past that point. If an employee starts to make too many mistakes, attitudes of colleagues start down a slippery slope of doubt about the performance, perhaps even resulting in termination. So how then, do we become vulnerable–that place where we need to admit something about ourselves than is less than perfect–but also the very place that can open the door to a new level of achievement?

As a quick, but important, highlight to this point, if you’re interested to explore more about the idea of vulnerability  I highly recommend the work of Brené Brown. She’s the real deal and will inspire and teach you wonderful things. Her TED talk is exceptional.

It takes the mindset of the organization’s leadership to balance that place of risk and vulnerability. Managers need to instill a safety net for employees in which to fall, allowing them permission to come up short sometimes as they reach out toward new goals. 

Here are my suggestions for managers on making the workplace safe and risk-tolerant at the same time:

  • Allow employees to be who they really are. Encourage their questions as opposed to squelching them. If someone is intimidated by the environment, they will not be able to grow and develop outside their comfort zone.
  • Set your sights on the long-term goal and allow the possibility of what might have to “give” to make that happen. For example, build in a realistic time frame to account for a learning curve that someone will go through. Don’t change a major process and expect everyone to execute in record time with no mistakes.
  • Understand that every employee will approach risk differently, some more easily than others. Each person is unique and by learning more about how they view risk will allow you to work together more effectively.
  • If a mistake happens, be objective about the magnitude of it. Is it really a big problem or just an inconvenience or frustration?
  • Recognize where the person is on the continuum of learning for the skill or task.  In other words, did we ask a novice to conduct an expert’s task?
  • Be proactive and request employees to create their own professional development objectives. Make it clear that you, as a manager, encourage new growth, which means mistakes along with accomplishments. And don’t forget to walk the talk — set goals for yourself and share your success and failures along the way!

All of these suggestions are designed to establish a culture of openness and trust, where an employee is encouraged to grow and at the same time has permission to be vulnerable.

I understand the enormous pressure for organizations to perform. Products needs to be unique, delivery schedules faster than ever, costs reduced, and quality exceptional. That can’t be accomplished when everyone is taking too many risks, but neither will it happen when no one is taking any risks! Innovation comes from trying new things, which means risks. If a manager puts too much pressure on perfection, without allowing for some imperfections along the way, long-term failure will ensue. I’m saying we need some small hiccups in order to achieve the big things.

In what ways are you encouraging risks and failures with your team? I’d love to hear from you! Let’s share a few failures together on our way to huge successes.

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