Creating a Failure-Safe Workplace for Employees

​Though “failure is not an option” is certainly a fitting phrase for a major space mission like Apollo 13, ...

​Though “failure is not an option” is certainly a fitting phrase for a major space mission like Apollo 13, the everyday workplace should be less prone to believing those words, and instead welcome confessions like “Houston, we have a problem.” After all, some of the best professional breakthroughs have come about from failures—just look at Michael Jordan’s and Steve Jobs’ careers. “It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to me…it freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life,” Jobs shared in his 2005 Stanford commencement address. And Jordan once said, “Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Why Encouraging Failure Is Essential

Failure is essential to an organization’s success. Not only is a failure-safe environment good for employee morale, but it can also foster new levels of creativity in the workplace and help build compassion, character, and resilience. It’s also clear that we cannot have success without some degree of failure. As Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda, once said, “Success represents the 1 percent of your work which results from the 99 percent that is called failure.”

Despite the many well-documented benefits of failure, the need to succeed can create an immense amount of pressure in the workplace, where performance is constantly being evaluated and the greater labor market outside of office walls remains fragile. And in the middle of a pandemic, as many people are struggling and feeling especially exposed and vulnerable, the added pressure to stay in control and prevent failure can be overwhelming, and even toxic. The move, then, to create a psychologically safe workplace—one in which employees feel safe to take risks, be vulnerable, and yes, fail—is long overdue.

The challenge for leaders is to make employees feel safe in the face of failure. The ability to fail—in fact, the encouragement to fail—must start at the top.

Here are five ways leaders can cultivate a work environment that allows for failure and challenges employees to take risks and explore new ideas.

1. Be Vocal About Failing First

Employees need to know that there’s a built-in safety net for their failures. By making your failures, whether big or small, widely and regularly known, you put a face to the often-scary idea of failure, humanize yourself, and built trust with employees. Trust is essential in any healthy relationship, and employees must trust that you mean what you say. If you say failure is OK, you must reflect that in your actions. Be authentic with those around you, and they’ll learn to trust you and take much-needed risks to make the organization even better. As Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull said, “If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others.” He believes it’s important not to ignore or hide from failures, but to be open about meltdowns inside Pixar, because they teach something important. “We must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.”

2. Have an Open Door Policy (and Mean It)

Make yourself available for honest conversations and, in addition, be candid in the way you communicate with others in the organization. Take the idea of the “open door policy” a step further:

  • Check in frequently.

    Go out of your way to proactively talk with employees at all levels about how things are going with projects or in their day-to-day activities. Find out where they may need help, and connect them to the right resources. Share your own advice and experiences in a non-judgmental way. It’s important to create a shared understanding of why everyone’s input matters, according to Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. Be appreciative of their input, even if it’s not what you want to hear. You may consider saying, “Thanks for that clear line of sight” or asking in response to a stated challenge, “What can we do to help you out?”

  • Put problem-solving on the calendar.

    Schedule virtual “open door sessions” where you’re available for questions and on-the-spot problem-solving, and break the ice first by talking about a recent failure or situation you’ve been struggling with. Invite employees to share their own situations and encourage others on the call to chime in with suggestions on how to clear obstacles they’re facing. Employees who feel psychologically safe “are more interested in learning, excellence, and genuinely connecting with others than in looking good,” said Edmondson.

  • Empower your employees.

    Take a cue from the agile and improv worlds, in which clear communication, continuous collaboration and feedback, adaptability, and an abundance of learning and growth opportunities are the norm. An agile leadership style can provide clear direction in times of uncertainty, while still encouraging employees to “fail fast” and feel safe trying new things. Show employees that the “open door” truly is always open by asking them for their ideas, all the time. Be sure employees understand that you’re not testing them. Get employees involved in the decision-making process of bringing ideas to fruition, and along the way work together to determine ideas thatwon’twork.

3. Celebrate Failures

Don’t just accept failure in the workplace—celebrate it. Even if it feels a bit over the top at first, it takes time to build trust and make employees feel both safe and supported enough to venture away from their comfort zones and try new ways of thinking and working. Keep in mind that some of the patterns employees rely on have been built up over months and years. It can take some time to peel away the layers, but the rewards are well worth it. When James Quincey took over as the CEO of Coca Cola Co. in May 2017, he said, “If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough.” He encouraged employees to get past the fear of failure that had plagued the company since the “New Coke” disaster many years earlier.

Remind those from top leadership all the way down to make space for employees to try new things, rather than micromanaging them. Encourage them to celebrate the failures that occur in their own teams, rather than engaging in a “command and control” style of leading, which often stokes division and fear and kills idea-sharing and innovation. These types of leaders often act this way because they don’t feel psychologically safe, and in turn they don’t create a safe space for the teams under them. Successful and empowering leaders, however, create a safety net for their employees and help them be their best selves.

Help your team find opportunities in the things that don’t go according to plan. Ask them to share “failures of the week,” and positively recognize those who identify and share approaches that aren’t working. Find ways to share them across the company in a positive and celebratory way that creates a domino effect of failure sharing across the organization.

4. Be Transparent in Times of Change

Making employees feel psychologically safe in times of “business as usual” is one thing; making them feel safe in times of organizational change is quite another. If your organization is experiencing layoffs, re-organizational shake-ups, or uncertainty in the face of looming changes, how and when you manage those changes can make all the difference. Too often, employees are ignored and don’t know what’s happening until rumors have swirled, stress and anxiety is at an all-time high, and trust is irreparably broken. By that point, people are afraid to say or do much of anything to draw attention to themselves—and failing is the last thing they feel comfortable doing.

By creating a safe place to work through your everyday words and actions, employees will feel more prepared when changes do come. Instead of reacting from a place of fear, they’ll be more likely to respond from a place of trust. So, be open about what you know and when you know it, and be honest about what you don’t. Hold yourself accountable for keeping employees informed on an ongoing basis, even if that means saying, “I don’t know the answer to that right now, but I’ll update you as soon as I do.”

As much as possible, enable employees to continue to collaborate and take professional risks to move the organization forward, and to speak up and be honest about their ideas and opinions. Reward “truth telling,” particularly in times of flux, to give employees the power to help fix what’s broken and elevate the organization in new ways.

Leaders need to feel confident to lead through change, too—particularly in times when their leadership skills are tested most. Robustly support leaders and managers, so that they in turn are able to better support their teams. Share what to expect from employees in times of change, and how to navigate roadblocks they may encounter. Be clear that if something goes wrong, you’re available to help. Your efforts will trickle down throughout the company and help to foster a failure-safe culture, even in times of change.

5. Future-Proof Your Failures

Creating a workplace where failure is accepted and encouraged is half the battle; incorporating learnings from those failures to create future success is the other half.

  • Have built-in checkpoints that serve as “safety nets” throughout a project (as agile teams have) to review what’s working, what’s not, get additional resources, and make any needed tweaks to help manage the outcome. Discuss predetermined project milestones to measure how on-point things are—or whether they’re veering off course.

  • After a project is finished, gather the team for post-project reviews to get feedback and perspectives from each team member to find out where they struggled or ran into roadblocks, what went well, and what lessons were learned. Reflecting and adapting for the next project will help the team avoid repeating the same mistakes, and putting everyone’s heads together in one place can lead to idea breakthroughs and increased trust and morale among colleagues.

  • Create a process around failed ideas that gives employees a safe space to fail while also learning from failed ideas what not to do in the future. Consider changing KPIs to reward risk and failure; to truly make failure part of the culture, entrepreneur Annabel Acton says that employees must actively be measured against it. One way do to this is to hold employees accountable for trying one new approach to one of their tasks each quarter (bonus if it feels intimidating and unknown). Make sure that shared lessons and learnings as a team are a fixture of the process.

  • Test and learn. Map out what went wrong, identify the weak points in your process, and create a formalized checklist or system to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Getting Great at Failing

Lastly, make failure an everyday part of your workplace. As Neil Gaiman urged in his commencement address, “Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes no one’s ever made before.” Then, encourage those who work with you to do the same.