What Does It Mean to Create a 'Culture of Failure'?

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

In my last post, I discussed the importance of failure in company culture. In order for people to take risks and push the envelope, they need to have a certain level of comfort with defeat. In other words, you don't only need to walk before you run to succeed—you also need to be okay with stumbling every once in a while.

But what does this "culture of failure" look like, and how is it achieved? Embracing failure isn't about patting people on the back when they miss the mark—at its core, a culture of failure is about feedback that helps you make the mark next time. If you want to progress as an individual or as a company, you need to be willing to identify your weaknesses and maximize your strengths.

However, even the most self-aware people are limited in their ability to identify these strengths and weaknesses on their own. They need help—and, based on my experience, they want help. If you look at recent research on the millennial generation—which, in many ways, I believe strongly reflects the desires of every generation—you'll find that almost everything points back to the desire for growth and development, for continuous feedback. Most people are craving conversations that push them to the next level. The question is, how do you get there?

Build Structured Communication

Creating a culture of failure comes down to communication—communication between employees and managers, between managers and VPs, between VPs and the C-suite. As director of talent management at Cornerstone, I've focused a lot of my time and energy on fostering the type of communication that leads to a company and workforce not only open to risk-taking, but prone to it.

At Cornerstone, we train managers to provide their employees with "stretch projects." The key to these projects' success, however, doesn't lie in giving the assignment—it lies in the conversations that occur before and afterwards. Prior to the project, the manager asks the employee, "What's your likelihood for success? What's your expected failure rate? What are your obstacles?" After the project, the manager debriefs with the employee to identify successes and failures on both ends: "What were the unforeseen obstacles? Was the task as clearly communicated as possible? Were the challenges identified individual blocks, or systemic blocks? And if they were systemic blocks, who should have gotten on your side?"

Teach People to Ask For Feedback

With structured communication, employees will begin to feel more comfortable taking on stretch assignments. First, because they know the goal isn't success—it's growth. And second, because when they fail—and, usually, they are bound to "fail" in some sense—they will have a deep understanding of how to succeed the next time around.

The second benefit of structured communication—and another step toward fostering a workforce comfortable with failure—is that it will teach people to be comfortable with feedback. When most people ask for "feedback" today, I've found that what they truly expect is congratulations. Why? It's not that they don't want to improve—it's just that they aren't used to hearing constructive criticism, and are therefore unsure of how to handle it.

Structured communication familiarizes both employees and managers with receiving and providing tough feedback. After a few stretch assignments, employees will learn to be their own best advocates and managers will learn how to truly coach their employees. Instead of asking, "How did that go?" employees will learn to ask, "How could that have gone better?" And instead of a nonchalant "Good job!" managers will be able to provide both congratulations and criticism.

Prioritize Growth

Last but not least, it's not enough to simply encourage employees and managers to communicate or discuss feedback. It needs to be a formal part of your culture, embodied by your values. Because as I've learned during my career, there are two truths about culture: 1) Culture can be made and 2) Whether you consciously make it or not, culture will happen.

If you aren't mindful and strategic about integrating failure into your company culture—through formal communication, trainings and leadership by example—you won't realize the eventual success that comes from risk-taking. It is critical to prioritize manager feedback, employee reviews, and general stretch assignments. As a CLO or CHRO, you can beat the drum of "failure is a good thing" all you want—but unless you formalize this belief, and immerse your workforce from the start in a company that encourages feedback and growth, you won't see a true cultural shift.

An excuse I hear all too often is, "I want to give feedback—it's just that I'm too busy." The hard truth is that at the end of the day, your employees are the only thing you should always have time for. If you're too busy for them, then you're failing to invest in the future of your personal career, team and company. Like all good things, this is easier said than done—but as I've learned throughout my career, your biggest failures will take you farther than any small success.

Photo: Creative Commons

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