In general FAILURE is seen as something to avoid at all cost. We are very afraid to fail. At workplace, people are sometimes so afraid of making a mistake that they rather accept to be humiliated or micromanaged by their managers. Such employees accept to do whatever their manager ask (even in disagreement) than to take the initiative to do something creative without asking the manager first. Employees prefer to stay in their comfort zone than to take the risk and eventually make a mistake. That’s why in many companies employees are not feeling safe to tell the truth and they lie about their tasks at work. If we do a mistake and the manager doesn’t know about it yet, our first instinct is to hide everything and when the managers want to know what the status of a specific task is, we lie hard. In fact people at work are realty terrified by failure. But managers too. As a general rule managers have the highest pay-rate in a company, most of them are overconfident about their knowledge and because they want to show who’s in charge, they are in fact the ones who lie the most.
But this tendency of hiding the mistakes and lying comes from our early stage of development for the adult life. It all begins from our school-years. Failure is actually a good thing because it sparks the creativity. But unfortunately what’s odd is, that in many ways it’s the precise opposite of the view espoused in most classrooms. From an early age, children are taught that success means having the right answers. That struggling is a bad sign, the sort of thing you do when you’re not quite “getting it,” or the work is too hard. Throughout much of their education students are encouraged to finish assignments quickly. Those who don’t are sent off to tutors.
After 12 years of indoctrination, it’s no wonder that so many of us view failure the way we do: as something to avoid at all cost. We’re implicitly taught that struggling means others will view us poorly, when in reality it’s only by stretching ourselves that we develop new skills. What was originally introduced as a feedback tool to foster better learning has had the opposite effect. When we reduce performance to As or Bs, pass or fail, good or bad, we make the learning opportunities that failure provides hard to appreciate.
Failure, per se, is not enough. The important thing is to mine the failure for insight that can improve your next attempt. But research suggests that the approach of rewarding intelligent failure may be more of an impact on students than we might initially suspect, especially when it comes to promoting a thinking style that’s conducive to innovation. The reason is that when the possibility of failure looms as a major threat, our mind does some funny things.
How TO SPARK CREATIVITY
You know that aha! feeling you get when you solve a difficult problem with a clever insight? Let’s see if we can recreate that experience now. We’re going to play a little game to test your creativity. I’m going to list three seemingly unrelated words. Your job is to be up with a fourth-one that conceptually connects the first three words in a group.
Here’s an example:
SWISS CAKE COTTAGE
The answer is cheese: (Swiss) cheese; cheese (cake); (cottage) cheese.
Now let’s see how well you do on some of these.
PAINT DOLL CAT ———-
FALLING ACTOR DUST ———-
STICK LIGHT BIRTHDAY ———-
These are just a few items from the Remote Associates Test (also known by the somewhat unfortunate acronym RAT), a tool psychologists use to measure creative insight. To find the right answer – in this case: House, Star, and Candle – you need to discover a link between ostensibly unrelated concepts, the same activity at the heart of many creative endeavors. Now suppose we raise the stakes. Instead of doing the RAT for fun, I’m going to start paying you based on how well you do. You’re going to see 10 RAT items. For each item you get right, I’ll give you a crisp 5-euro bill. OK, ready?
But wait. Before we start, let’s pause here for a second. Take a moment to examine the way you feel. Are you eager? Focused? Engaged? If so, you’re likely experiencing an “approach motivational state.”
When people are in an approach mind-set, their focus is on achieving positive outcomes, because they see the potential for gain. Contrast that with the feeling you get when we change the terms of the exercise slightly. Instead of paying you after every correct response, I’ll just give you the full 50 euros right at the start. Not bad, right? But here’s the catch. This time around, for every mistake you make, I’m going to take away 5 euros. Notice the shift in the way you feel. If you’re like most people, your attention is no longer centered on the potential gain. Instead you’ve become sensitized to the possibility of loss. You’ve entered what’s called an “avoidance motivational state.”
Every task we engage in, can involve an approach or avoidance mind-set. Take a relatively low-stakes activity, like visiting a gym. Some of us exercise in order to gain a fitter body or impress a romantic partner (approaching a positive outcome), while the rest of us may do so in order to stop gaining weight or stave off high cholesterol (avoiding negative outcome). In each case our action is exactly the same. But the difference in our psychological framing can strongly influence our experience, affecting everything from the emotions we feel stepping onto a treadmill to our likelihood of returning the next day. Our motivational mind-set is particularly critical when we’re engaged in creative activities. Research shows that when we’re energized possibility of gain, we adopt a flexible cognitive style that allows us to easily switch between mental categories.We take a broader view, seeing the forest instead of the trees, while exploring a wider array of possibilities. In sum, when we’re energized by approach motivation, we instinctively use the very mental techniques that make us more creative.It’s a different story when avoidance motivation enter the picture.
The moment evading a negative outcome becomes the focus, our attention narrows and our thinking becomes more rigid. We have a hard time seeing the big picture and resist the mental exploration necessary for finding a solution. All of a sudden, insights become a lot more elusive. In part, the reason is physiological. When avoiding failure is a primary focus, the work isn’t just more stressful; it’s a lot harder to do. And over the long run, that mental strain takes a toll, resulting in less innovation and the experience of burnout. Ironically, allowing for mistakes to happen can elevate the quality of our performance. It’s true even within roles that don’t require creativity.
SUCCESSFUL TEAMS MAKE MORE MISTAKES
When the consequences of reporting failure are too severe, employees avoid acknowledging mistakes altogether. But when a work environment feels psychologically safe and mistakes are viewed as a natural part of the learning process, employees are less prone to covering them up. The fascinating implication is that fearful teams avoid examining the causes of their blunders, making it all the more likely that their mistakes will be repeated again in the future. Having a team that’s afraid of admitting failure is a dangerous problem particularly because the symptoms are not immediately visible what appears on the surface to be a well-functioning unit may, in fact be a group that’s too paralyzed to admit its own flaws.
In contrast, teams that freely admit their errors are better able to learn from one another’s mistakes. They can also take steps to prevent repeating those mistakes by tweaking their process. Over the long term, encouraging employees to acknowledge mistakes is therefore vital first step to seeing improvement.
THE RIGHT WAY TO REWARD FAILURE
For example, large pharmaceutical companies have begun rewarding scientists for pulling the plug on major research projects, in an effort to discourage researchers from laboring on ineffective products for fear that admitting failure might cost them their jobs. Merck & Co., one of the world’s largest drug manufacturers, gives additional stock options to scientists who admit their research is yielding undesirable results. The faster scientists fail, the thinking goes, the sooner they can be reassigned to a project with stronger potential. The alternative is throwing good money after bad.
“You can’t change the truth you can only delay how long it takes to find it out”
“If you don’t encourage people to take risks, then you end up with incrementalism forever”
Software development company HCL Technologies takes it one step further by inviting executives to create a Failure CV. To enter the firms highly coveted internal leadership program, applicants are required to list some of their biggest career blunders and then explain what they’ve learned from each experience. To advance their careers, potential leaders must first show that they have the ability to turn failure into progress. Those who can’t seem to identify any mistakes are presumably told they now have something to put on future applications. It’s an interesting approach. One that begs the question: What would the Failure CV of someone like William Shakespeare or Steve Jobs look like? And how would their Failure CV compare to yours?
One thing we can predict with some certainty is that the Failure CV of most high achievers tends to be surprisingly lengthy. Which when you think about it, is quite refreshing. We don’t often think of those at the top as a bunch of chronic failures. But in a way, that’s precisely what they are. It’s what enabled their success in the first place It’s a lesson with strong implications for the workplace.
When organizations communicate that failure is not an option, they incur an invisible cost: one that triggers a psychological reaction that restricts employee thinking, rewards lying, encourages cover-ups, and fuels the proliferation of more mistakes. It’s an approach that ignores a basic reality of how learning and innovation really happen. We want to believe that progress is simple. That Success and Failure provide clear indicators of the value of our work. Bur the path to excellence is rarely a straight line. If there’s one unifying insight we can draw from the experience of extraordinary achievers it is this:
Sometimes the best way to minimize failure is to embrace it with open arms.
The Lessons of Failure
Action Items for Managers
I. Reward the attempts, not just the outcomes. Want to see creativity in the workplace? Then incentivize employees for trying new approaches and occasionally taking risks. When successful outcomes are the only things that are recognized, employees fall back on a conservative approach,sticking with what’s worked in the past. The only way to promote risk-taking is to reward the attempts, reinforcing behaviors you want to encourage.
II. Mine failures for opportunities. When a team’s efforts fall Flat it’s natural to want to move on by burying your nose in your next assignment. But expert performers know that failure often contains powerful clues for improvement, especially when the focus is on what can be improved in the future. Be careful, however, not to turn postmortems into witch hunts by fixating on who made the mistake. Far better to ask future-oriented questions like, “What’s one thing we can do better next time?”
III.Play the long game. No one likes failure. And tolerating setbacks as a manager is certainly a risk. But successful companies know that creating the space for intelligent failure is an investment, one that can yield major rewards in the long run. Think like Google. Or Gretzky. Or Jobs. It’s not just about your organization’s performance today. It’s about its performance in five years.
The Lessons of Failure
Action Items for Emerging Leaders
I. Ask yourself, “What have I failed at today?” High achievers don’t see failure as a personal indictment. They view it as a sign that they’re on the brink of growth. If everything you do at work comes easily, consider this: You may not be pushing yourself hard enough. Developing your skills is like waging a negotiation. If the opposition says yes right away it might mean you’ve aimed too low.
II.Anticipate the J Curve. We like to think of progress as a straight line, where one development builds on top of another, leading to steady and unswerving improvement. It’s a comforting model, But when it comes to complex creative endeavors, it’s also unrealistic. The relationship between creativity and progress is messy and often looks less like a straight line and more like a J, with a heavy dip at the start representing early challenges and setbacks. Anticipating your early struggles makes it easier to stick around for later gains
III. Failure not an option? It may be time to go. In a knowledge economy, unless you’re acquiring new skills, you’re slowly becoming obsolete. Some organizations want employees to repeat the same behaviors again and again without variation. This is not in your interest. Workplace experimentation is the only path to developing the skills you need to remain both relevant and valuable.