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How to Make it Safe to Fail and Promote Innovation

Our relationship with failure is broken in the workplace. A few bright spots exist where employees feel safe to innovate by trial and error, but for the most part, we talk a good game and do everything in our power to avoid it. Bestselling author Anita Moorjani and I talked about how fear perpetuates our failure avoidance and how to get past it.

“The first thing we need to do is see through it,” says Moorjani. “We need to recognize our conditioning as schoolchildren when we first encountered a fear-based system. We teach schoolchildren about how to compete and compare, about falling behind or not getting ahead, and—worst of all— about getting into the ‘right’ college.”

While many young professionals carry this mindset into their early careers, they find that many organizations reinforce this mentality. My conversation with Moorjani prompted me to think about what types of motivation and influence really work. The carrot-and-stick approach comes to mind. Some successful “stick cultures” lean in to negative consequences, but a closer look tells me that people either tolerate the high-pressured environment by finding internal buffers or don’t stay for long.

The truth is that we’re all giving ourselves a fair share of fear because the working environment expects failure-free performance—especially in today’s shifting marketplace. If fear is something we’re conditioned to feel due to our upbringing, do we really need more of it coming from the top? Thriving “carrot cultures” that apply rewards for good behavior tell us no.

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How do more leaders create an environment where a growth mindset flourishes and diminishes our fear associated with failure? Consider these thoughts:

Tell employees you want them to grow with you.

Sponsoring online learning access or subsidizing degrees and certificates is a start, but you must foster a fail-forward culture by intentionally framing these opportunities. Failing forward means to deliberately use failure to find success. Help employees understand that you strive to be a learning organization—where people feel safe to experiment and learn on the job.

When you begin to frame your growth opportunities in this context, demonstrate your commitment by modeling your willingness to learn from failure. Consider a fail-fest contest or pilot campaign where employees feel encouraged to think outside the box and either submit ideas for testing or lead the project. By orchestrating a testing environment, you normalize and expect failures, making it more acceptable outside of these events.

Reimagine employee well-being.

A silver lining of the pandemic has been our increasing focus on individual well-being. For many of us, blending our work with being at home helps us tap into our personal lives to restore our reserves quicker and bounce back from failure. Going on a walk to push reset or using what was commute time to catch a meal with loved ones is now possible.

Companies need to build on this new life balance by tying their employees’ work to meaning. When we assign meaning to our work and experience occasional missteps, it makes failing more tolerable and less fearsome. The greater the connection our work has to purpose, the more likely we are buoyed by the prospect of returning every day and persisting at challenges.

Fear of failure is a natural byproduct of our educational methods and other systems in our society. Companies have a chance to break the cycle by fostering an environment where it’s safe to fail forward. Leaders can’t depend solely on hybrid or fully remote work settings to compensate for stress that’s tied to fail-free expectations. They must connect employee deliverables to a higher purpose and encourage their people to learn on the job without judgment. If they tick these two boxes, leaders benefit from employees who withstand the anxiety of testing new ideas because they know their efforts have value.

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