There has been a lot of buzz about the importance of encouraging failure in the workplace and how it can lead to great ideas that may not have otherwise come about. This is not a new way of thinking. Asked about his failures, Thomas Edison is purported to have said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
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While it is true that failure can play a role in the workplace, it is important to outline the parameters for failure before encouraging it. Someone who works in marketing has more leeway in terms of responsibilities and more autonomy, so it is perfectly reasonable to expect someone in this position to test out new avenues and approaches that may not always work. On the flip side, if someone is in a position where they're expected to get X number of cogs made in an hour, this person has a lot less room for failure.
Many companies have adopted cultures wherein failure is not only accepted, but encouraged. Still, many employees fear the embarrassment and loss of credibility that can come with failure. Others worry they will lose their jobs if they fail.
Encouraging employees to fail does not always mean encouraging employees to do things that won't work. Positive failures can also come in the idea-generation stage. Management should identify ways for employees to express their opinions to one another – e.g., anonymous feedback platforms or frequent brainstorming sessions.
When creating messaging that encourages employees to embrace failure, make it more specific than "Don't be afraid to fail." Verbiage should focus less on failure and more on the value of ideas that may seem atypical or out of the norm.
Here are a few things your company can do to create healthy parameters for failure within your various departments:
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1. Clearly Define Which Tasks Are Appropriate for Failure and Which Are Not
For example, if an employee's job primarily focuses on customer service, there will be times when failure is not an option. It's okay to try some riskier things that could elevate the customer experience, but only if failure wouldn't lower the customer experience to a level below acceptable.
2. Outline When Employees Can Act
Make sure employees know when they're empowered to act on their own and when they need input from a manager before pursuing a new idea. Give employees freedom to implement ideas with a relatively low risk levels. Doing so will allow them to grow and gain the confidence to try bigger, riskier things in the future – with their manager's input, of course!
3. Share Both Success and Failure Stories
When companies only report back on successful ventures, it makes failure seem like a scary option. In recent times, some companies have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction, focusing too much on celebrating failures to the detriment of the whole team.
Failures should be celebrated and encouraged, but if the successes aren't shared as well, employees won't know what they're working toward.
Meghann Isgan is the team success manager at Readers.com.