It was the resume read ’round the world.
In spring 2016, Princeton psychologist Johannes Haushofer published a new kind of professional history: a CV of Failures. With sections like “Academic Positions I Did Not Get” and “Awards and Fellowships I Did Not Get,” this publication laid out in unsparing detail his unsuccessful efforts.
He couldn’t resist drawing a lesson from the flurry of interest in this unusual document: “Most of what I try fails. But these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible.” That leaves many with the impression that most of his undertakings work out. Nothing could be farther from the truth, he says.
Failure in the Workplace
If a researcher at one of the world’s most prestigious universities sees failure as part of the journey, why do we avoid it in the workplace? Why do we hide our unsuccessful efforts? And what would allowing employees to fail do for our organizational cultures?
Far from destroying businesses, embracing failure could make them stronger. Here’s why letting your employees fail is essential to helping them succeed:
1. Failure is an unavoidable part of life.
Many workplaces operate with expectations that aren’t set up for the way life goes. They don’t make it easy for workers to struggle. Instead, employees duck blame, minimize their shortcomings, or despair about their capabilities.
A more forgiving approach benefits everyone. Instead of avoiding failure, workplaces should anticipate it. Managers should help employees learn from mistakes. Employees need to grow when their results are disappointing. The company can adapt based on what went wrong — and focus on figuring out what might work next time.
Failure is inevitable. It shouldn’t be taboo. It’s how you move forward that counts.
2. Failure fosters healthier work cultures.
A workplace that encourages failure as part of the learning curve allows employees to become their best selves.
Beyond the personal benefits, embracing failure can change institutional cultures. Like individuals, organizations have to navigate ups and downs to attain success. “Failing well” can reshape the work environment, stimulating creativity, risk-taking, and growth.
Need help establishing that culture? Consider getting transformative leadership speakers to discuss the place of failure in the workplace.
3. Failure strengthens resilience.
What’s the best predictor of future success in business? Is it intelligence? Is it charisma? What about experience in the field? Degrees from the right schools? Internships at top firms?
None of the above. The answer, it turns out, is grit. As Angela Duckworth defines it, grit is equal parts passion and perseverance. Whether researchers are examining athletic performance or educational attainment, this single trait separates the best from the rest.
Think of failure not as a catastrophe for your workers, but as an opportunity to develop grit. Like the athlete who learns from defeat, employees will grow from frustrated attempts if they’re taught to mine these experiences for resilience.
4. Failure is essential to success.
Oprah Winfrey braved challenging circumstances and dangerous neighborhoods to become an icon. Richard Branson was diagnosed with severe learning disabilities, yet made a fortune as a media mogul. Michael Jordan was cut from his freshman basketball team, but secured his place in the basketball pantheon. Steve Jobs teetered on the edge of business failure and was ousted from Apple leadership. He later returned to guide the brand to unprecedented heights.
What’s important about these examples is the clear link between failure and success. Setbacks aren’t just incidental to achievement — they’re essential way stations on the road to triumph.
Organizations should treat failures as opportunities to build up their rock-star employees, not as deficiencies.
5. Failure builds community.
Not only does embracing failure build a brand’s culture, but it also builds community.
Employees who know failure is part of the job tend to support each other when things go wrong — not cast blame. All that energy expended in passing the buck can instead be dedicated to taking responsibility. As a group, they’ll learn from mistakes and move forward together.
That attitude tends to binds teams together rather than break them apart. In fact, few things unite workers more than shared experiences of progressing through challenges, so long as there’s a framework for doing so.
Haushofer’s CV of Failures reminds us just how intimately failure is related to success. Making mistakes is unavoidable. But companies that make space for learning from these errors equip their employees — and their organizations — to scale new heights.