DESIGNING A GREAT WORKPLACE EXPERIENCE _Why great workplaces reward failure?

Let me start this article by mentioning how things go whenever there is a competition in sport, be it the WorldCup,  the Olimpics, Championships, or any other types of competitions where athletes must demonstrate their talent. What happens every time when the game is over?  There is not a podium only for 1 winner, instead it’s for 3 best winners. The other participants are winners too, simply because they qualified to participate at the general competition. In every game you play and you don’t win, as often happens, that doesn’t mean you have lost. No, it’s either you win or you learn something, and you’ll probably win by next time. The winner takes the gold medal, yet the 2nd loser and the 3rd loser get a medal too, silver for the 2nd and copper/bronze for the 3rd. The 2nd and the 3rd both failed, and still got rewarded. Why? Well… it must be quite obvious, they will be highly motivated to be better next time and one of them will be the next Nr. 1. This analogy is very much valid at any workplace as well.

In general FAILURE is seen as something to avoid at all cost. Of course, 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 team leader asks (even being in strong disagreement), than to take the initiative to do something creative without asking the team leader 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 you do a mistake and the team manager doesn’t know about it yet, your first instinct is to hide everything and when the managers want to know what the status of a specific task is, you just simply lie. In vast majority, people at workplaces are really terrified by failure, mostly the yournger ones but in general everybody is afraid, including managers. 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. 

This is the most common lie at work.

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, just like I’ve mentioned earlier the case in sport. But unfortunately what’s odd is, that in many ways it’s the precise opposite of the view exposed in most classrooms at school. 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 school indoctrination in our teenager life, 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.


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 3 seemingly unrelated words. Your job is to be up with a 4-one that conceptually connects the first 3 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.

  1. PAINT,     DOLL,     CAT,         ———-
  2. FALLING, ACTOR, DUST,      ———-
  3. 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: 1=House, 2=Star, and 3=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, let’s say, 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.”

This is when you are eager to get something.

When people are in an approach mind-set, their focus is on achieving positive outcomes, because they see the potential for gain. Just like athletes vision the potential to win the gold medal. 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.” I was just to testing you. I won’t do another execise. But now I hope you get the idea.

This is when you are tempted to avoid something.

This is to highlight that 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. So especially at workplace, it’s totally ok if you fail to deliver as requested for a certain task with the condition that you won’t constantly fail again with doing the same mistake. You can fail multiple times in different situations for different tasks, and if you do, your manager must support you and encourage you to do it better next time. In fact both of you, yourself and your boss must embrace the failure, learn from it and improve together for the next time.


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