“The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”
~Thomas Watson Sr., former chairman and CEO of IBM

Are you failure-tolerant?

We’ve been conditioned to fear failure. As a result, we may go about each workday with the looming anxiety of messing up or embarrassing ourselves. Leaders have a duty to foster an environment that addresses that fear and instead embraces failure as not only okay but a firm requirement for innovation.

When I reflect back on the mistakes I’ve made in my life and career, it is impossible to ignore the fact that each and every failure led to invaluable (albeit sometimes painful) discovery and growth.

  • My first job at an ad agency was a galactic failure. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t care about the work. I learned that advertising wasn’t my jam.
  • My finance career began with a stint on Wall Street (based on what my family thought I would be good at) which taught me that doing a job you don’t like–even when it earns an attractive salary–is a dead end. At the time, I thought I hated the finance industry. Later on, I discovered that wasn’t the case at all–I just didn’t care for corporate lending. Fast forward a few decades… the experience landed me a gig as a financial blogger, work that I deeply enjoyed.
  • For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the performance arts. Acting, songwriting, singing, the whole enchilada. At age seven, I was the lead singer in a neighborhood girl band called The Lockets. But in high school, when I signed up to audition for the musical Pippin, self-consciousness took root and I choked the moment I stepped on stage. I learned that I needed to build confidence and develop strategies to navigate stage fright. It wasn’t until nearly twenty years later that the fear of regret, of ignoring my passion, overshadowed the fear of performing. So, as a fortieth birthday gift to myself, I began working with a voice coach. That year, I auditioned for the lead vocalist spot in a local band, got the gig, and have been performing in bands ever since.=
  • I launched the first version of my consultancy in the wake of a painful divorce. The idea came to me when a multitude of friends and acquaintances reached out, asking for advice on how to face the fear they had about ending their own marriages. The experience taught me that I could help people feel better, give themselves permission to address what wasn’t working in their lives. To get unstuck.

Failing forward is a commitment I have made to myself (check out the blooper reel from my recent video shoot) because behind every bust is the potential to blossom. Setbacks provide invaluable information that can help us build a path forward that feels right, aligned with who we are and what matters to us. 

What Is Failure Tolerance?

According to researchers Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes, failure-tolerant leaders are “executives who, through their words and actions, help people overcome their fear of failure and, in the process, create a culture of intelligent risk-taking that leads to sustained innovation.”

Let’s clarify what is meant by “intelligent risk-taking.”  Some failures — like distributing faulty car brakes — pose health and safety risks due to a lack of attention and care. These are reckless and to be avoided at all costs. But failures born of earnest, responsible, and intelligent attempts at innovation are the type that can promote growth and discovery in the workplace.

Analyzing Failure
When failure occurs due to intelligent risk-taking, leaders can review the experiences and engage their teams by asking the following questions:

  • Was the process collaborative, or was there poor communication throughout completing the project?
  • Did the process stay true to its goals, or was it impacted by personal interests or other distractions?
  • Was there an honest projection of risks and resources (such as time and costs) involved with this project?
  • Were the same mistakes repeated throughout the process? If so, how can we prevent that from happening in the future?

None of these questions should focus on individuals, however. If conversations about failure wander into blaming territory, it is critical to redirect the conversation back toward the objective of learning.

Treat Failure and Success the Same
We’ve been conditioned to see failure as bad and success as good, but if we’re trying to eliminate shame from failure, then perhaps we shouldn’t treat it so differently from success.

When our team experiences success, we can ask similar (or even the same) questions. Was this a truly collaborative process? If so, how? In what ways did the process remain true to its goals? How were we able to effectively use our resources? What worked well that we can continue to implement in the future?

Both failure and success represent learning opportunities. In team sports, for example, a good coach will have a post-game talk with their players after every game, whether a win or a loss, to review what worked and what didn’t. Every game, no matter the outcome, offers lessons that will help the team improve.

Building Failure Into the Process
It may sound counterintuitive to incorporate failure into our work, but many successful companies make failure a part of their growth strategies. For example, Capital One continuously conducts market experiments with the knowledge that most will “fail.” But the failures provide meaningful insight into customer preferences.

Some companies embrace failure by forming exit strategies for projects to ensure that unfruitful experiments don’t drag on too long. Others employ an approach developed by civil engineering professor Alexander Lauer called simultaneous management in which two projects are launched with the same goal. Such failure-tolerant strategies allow leaders to help their teams learn what works best for future projects while encouraging failure tolerance in the process.

Jeff Bezos said, ““Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.”

Creating a fail-friendly work environment can spark innovation and creative problem-solving. 

If your team is suffering from the fear of failure, I offer talks and workshops that can help. Visit my website to learn more.


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