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The Secret to Team Success: Embrace Failure

It may be counterintuitive, but comfort with failure drives success. That’s because some of the most innovative ideas that a team comes up with won’t work. However if a team doesn’t feel free to try those new ideas, they won’t be able to figure out which ones will actually work. Fear of failure is a barrier to creating change and improving processes.

When I came into my current leadership position the status quo was firmly entrenched. Processes throughout the agency had changed drastically over the few years previous. However, there the change in how the department trained new staff had not . And inter-department communication happened when something went “wrong.” Directives won out over proactive initiative. And failure was viewed as a negative. Two years later, much of the original team still works in the department, but the new ideas flow more freely. And while we still experience some resistance to change, we are more open to trying new things.

Celebrate Success…and Failure

Entrepreneur Sara Blakely credits her success in part to her father’s daily practice of asking her what she failed at. She says it helped her to reframe what failure means: true failure is not trying. Taking risks leads to rewards, whether those rewards are financial or improved processes or a healthier work environment. Now in our training department when a new idea is presented there may be a person who says “What if it doesn’t work?” I respond inspired by Blakely’s failure framework. “Let’s see what happens. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.” Those folks on the team who are change resistant feel more comfortable knowing that if an idea is a failure we don’t have to pursue it. And those same folks are often happy to admit when a new idea has made things better for them.

Encourage People to Innovate

Peter Bregman writes often about the power of truly listening to others in your leadership role. Listening to others so that they feel heard encourages them to continue to open up and create new ideas. And those who feel comfortable sharing their thoughts are on the road to being comfortable with failure.  One of my favorite tactics I learned from Bregman’s writing. When a challenge or issue crops up at work I prefer to present it to my team to solve together. There are frequently ideas in the room better than my own. So I avoid sharing my own thoughts on how we should proceed until I have gotten input from the team.  I know if I share my thoughts first, some folks on my team won’t speak up because they feel apprehensive about “disagreeing” with the boss.

Empower People to Disagree

Speaking of disagreeing with the boss, managers who squelch dissent don’t have innovative teams. I have team members who love to point out when my idea is off the mark for some reason I don’t realize. And I am grateful to them, because they help keep our work running smoothly. Too often we equate disagreement with conflict or disrespect, but it doesn’t have to be so. When they point out my failure in thinking they usually have an alternative that’s better.

Organizational consultant Mary Abbajay recommends setting ground rules for meetings like the tried and true: respect others’ perspectives. She also recommends the “ouch” rule. This rule empowers anyone in the room to say “ouch” and then explain why if someone says something in the heat of debate that lands harshly. It puts the burden of holding each other accountable for positive communication on everyone, not just the leader.

Gabrielle Wonnell is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Kaitlin Moller

Great article. I really liked the part about encouraging people to innovate and hearing what they have to say about a problem before sharing what you think. Definitely fosters excellent collaboration and team-building.

Profile Photo Hope Marshall

Great points, Gabrielle. All too often, we want to skip right to the good part, where we’re all successful. But failures offer great lessons, so we do have to learn to embrace that too!

Profile Photo Jana Choi

The ouch rule is a great idea and I think it would be great to implement it in our office. I like the idea that it makes speaking one’s mind available to everyone and reduces resentment in the office place.

Profile Photo Blake Martin

Great piece! Embracing failure is critical, and I love the case you laid out for purposefully and pragmatically ensuring your team is successful through this embrace of trying and not succeeding. Failure puts you one step closer to success, so why be afraid to try in the first place!