In Failure, Fear, Resilience

Innovation is a key driver of growth.  With the rapid pace of change we need creativity to happen not just in R&D but throughout our organization across all levels.  How do we inspire that?

I’ve been experiencing a burst of creativity recently. I can’t help myself! As I scratched my head to understand this rather foreign phenomenon, I did what most of us do to learn anything new these days. I googled it. I got to an HBR article entitled “The No. 1 Enemy of Creativity: Fear of Failure”.  I got it.  Here’s the problem. How do we get leaders to develop the courage to take risks when we punish them for their failures? For women in particular, neuroscience research suggests we tend to punish ourselves first.

One of the traits that differentiate transformational leaders is their ability to inspire innovation.  Here’s one of the ways they do that. Transformational leaders inspire creativity because they let others fail without letting them be failures.  They start with themselves. Being comfortable in their own authenticity (including their flaws) helps them be comfortable with others’ failings and flaws.  If we want people to express their full creativity and potential, we need to give them permission to fail.  Here are three steps to do this:

Step 1: Question our Assumptions about Failure

Let’s re-examine three little assumptions we make quite unconsciously. They pervade the culture we live in. One day a long time ago, someone woke up and decided that:

  • Failure is a bad thing to be avoided at all costs (assumption #1)
  • If failure is a bad, then the person who failed must be a bad person (assumption #2)
  • Bad people have to be punished (assumption #3)

Maybe it came from Adam and Eve. Adam ate the apple. He failed. He was thus a bad person. He had to be punished. So we banished Adam and Eve from heaven. Welcome to the dawn of shame and guilt – highly useful when we need to shame people into behaving well.  Not so useful when we need them to take risks to learn, innovate, and grow.

Fast forward a few centuries, here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Failure is an excellent teacher (we learn best from personal experience)
  • People who experienced some of the biggest failures and learned from them (Wright brothers, Einstein, Lincoln among others) were the greatest contributors to progress
  • People who let themselves fail, learn, and try again must be celebrated

Another minor detail to note about us humans:  we are engaged and contribute most when we are led by those who help us to grow (i.e. create a safe environment to fail and learn).

Step 2: Take the Shame out of Failure

To take the shame away from anything we have attached it to, we have to:

  • Come out of the closet. Share our stories of failure and learning (the rule here is that leaders always go first)
  • Closely monitor our actions as leaders the next time someone fails. Culture is communicated in our actions more than our words
  • Re-examine our organization’s “rewards and punishments” to make them congruent with our goals of inviting creativity

Step 3 – Teach People to Fail Well

To embed new behaviors and learning we need to give people new tools on:

  • How to assess risk in any given situation and set the appropriate boundaries
  • How to be resilient to handle personal failure and coach others through failure
  • How to reward appropriate risk taking and learning

Importantly we need to give ourselves permission to fail and learn, and that begins with being comfortable with our own authenticity.  These are not easy steps. But they are worthwhile if we want to create leaders and organizations of great creativity, growth, and contribution.  This is the journey of transformational leadership.

If this resonated with you, please comment, subscribe and share with others.

Additional Resources:

My personal adventure in failure: Leadership Lessons in How To Fail Well

How to overcome fear of failure: Five Practices to go from Fears to Fierce

HBR Blog by Peter Sims: The No.1 Enemy of Creativity: Fear of Failure

Define your leadership authenticity: The Authentic Brand YOU

Heroes of Failure: Famous Failures

  • Kathy Ann Myer

    Leaders that talk openly about their own failures in a mindset of what was learned, build trust. Trust lowers anxiety, which improves performance in many measurements.

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