Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson experienced her first big-stakes professional failure when she was just starting out in her academic career, some 30 years ago, after a decade working in engineering and consulting. Little did she know at the time, but that mortifying defeat would open the door to major success down the road.
In 1993, as a doctoral student at Harvard, Edmondson conducted a study at two local hospitals, where she hypothesized that teams that worked better together would make fewer medical errors. Instead, her results showed the exact opposite was true: Better teams appeared to have more, not fewer, errors.
“All these years later, I can still remember viscerally how it felt,” says Edmondson, who recounts the experience in her new book about the importance of failure, Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well. She felt disappointment, of course, along with a creeping sense of shame, fear, and embarrassment. She worried how she would tell her supervisor about the failure. “It really did feel lousy. I remember thinking, ‘I’m reasonably capable. I can find something else to do after I drop out of grad school.’”
“We are all vulnerable to occasionally missing our goals—sometimes due to our own shortcomings and sometimes due to factors outside our control.”
The example shows just how emotionally taxing failure is, in both our careers and our personal lives. As a result, Edmondson says, most people do whatever they can to avoid failing—and when they do stumble, their instinct is to hide their mistakes, rather than openly acknowledge them.
Yet to unlock potential success, Edmondson says, people need to be honest about failures, so they can learn from them. Likewise, at a time when organizations are struggling to retain talent in an uncertain economy, managers need to send the message that they support employees even when they make mistakes, she says.
“Each and every one of us is a fallible human being. That’s not a choice or a judgment, that’s just a fact,” Edmondson says. “We all make mistakes. We are all vulnerable to occasionally missing our goals—sometimes due to our own shortcomings and sometimes due to factors outside our control. Either way, the only good option is to learn as much as possible from mistakes and failures alike.”
Fortunately, Edmondson didn’t give in to those feelings of shame and avoidance three decades ago when she faced her own failure. Instead, she calmed down and looked more closely at her data. In examining the survey results, one section popped out at her: People were asked if they agreed with the statement, “If you make a mistake in this unit, it won’t be held against you.” The results showed that the more people in a team agreed with that statement, the higher the team’s rate of medical errors. Could it be that the teams that worked well together didn’t necessarily make more errors, but rather reported
more errors because those employees felt able to admit their mistakes?
Edmondson suspected that to be true, and the study led her to develop the concept of psychological safety, which launched her career. “It’s hard to remember that this work was born of failure because it’s been such a successful research idea since,” she says.
Feeling safe to fail
Many people cling to an unrealistic ideal of perfectionism and irrationally avoid giving themselves permission to come up short. When failures happen, Edmondson says, they often conjure reactions of aversion, confusion, and fear, negative emotions that distract people from making sense of why the failure occurred—and recovering from it.
Those emotions are deep-seated from an evolutionary standpoint. “From a survival perspective, we are risk-averse,” she says. “Just as we are interested in other people thinking well of us. Long ago, rejection by the group could, in fact, lead to death from exposure or starvation.”
“You can learn to take a deep breath and be OK with not being perfect.”
In today’s fast-paced business environment, however, those old evolutionarily adaptive habits don’t apply. “The marketplace has never been more uncertain and full of interdependencies,” she says. “There’s crazy stuff out there, and it’s inevitable that [failures are] going to happen.”
Edmondson is not saying people should resign themselves to mishaps. “It doesn’t mean don’t strive or do your very best work,” she says. “But it does mean don’t beat yourself up over the inevitability of falling short at various times in your life. You can learn to take a deep breath and be OK with not being perfect.”
‘We are going to fail all day!’
The good news is that we are all fallible, which means we aren’t destined to fail alone, Edmondson says. Just like the medical teams that Edmondson examined 30 years ago, the best institutions and workplaces recognize this fact and create a psychologically safe space for people to speak up about failures, she says.
In her book, Edmondson introduces Jen Heemstra, a chemistry professor at Emory University who was profoundly shaped by the emotional low she felt when she first failed to obtain tenure at a previous institution. Ultimately, that pain led her to accept failure as a necessary part of her career. In her lab, she constantly emphasizes failure, telling her students that 95 percent of experiments fail, and cheerfully announcing, “We are going to fail all day!”
“Your number one job is to make failure discussable. It’s about doing everything you can to encourage transparency to ensure that when things go wrong, we learn the very most we can.”
By normalizing failure, Edmondson says, supervisors like Heemstra allow people to laugh off silly mistakes and stop beating themselves up for even the most thoughtful failed experiments, so they can focus their energy on developing new solutions. In one case, a graduate student frustratingly cycled through several wrong ways to isolate a particular kind of RNA before coming across a novel reagent that did the trick.
“Scientists are under a lot of pressure to publish and get things right,” Edmondson says. By setting up an environment where failure is the norm, Heemstra takes away some of that pressure and prompts people to discuss mistakes, rather than hide them.
Edmondson recommends managers follow Heemstra’s example when their employees fail. “Don’t belittle them, don’t blow them off,” she says. “Your number one job is to make failure discussable. It’s about doing everything you can to encourage transparency to ensure that when things go wrong, we learn the very most we can.”
Managers also can normalize failure by rewarding employees who attempt a new approach to their work, even if the experiment doesn’t pan out. Applauding smart risk-taking, rather than punishing the inevitable disappointments that occur with experimentation, will likely encourage employees to keep trying until they get something right, Edmondson says.
Four steps to failing successfully
As an antidote to the harmful negative emotions failure elicits, Edmondson suggests reframing failure by following a four-step approach: persistence, reflection, accountability, and apologizing.
- Persistence: In the book, Edmondson shares the story of Sara Blakely, who developed a pair of footless body-shaping stockings and tried to market them to women. When she was met with rejection, she fell back on the approach to failure her father instilled nightly around her childhood dinner table. He routinely asked Blakely and her brother what they failed at that day and turned each stumble into something to celebrate. Blakely retooled her marketing and patent application until eventually she persuaded someone to take a chance on the idea—which turned out to be Spanx, one of the most successful fashion startups of all time. “Accepting fallibility is not about letting you off the hook, it’s about putting you on the hook to do the very best you can,” Edmondson says. “If you are going to do anything hard or new, you are not necessarily going to get it right the first time.”
- Reflection: There is a fine line between persistence and stubbornness, Edmondson says, which is where reflection comes in. People who are best at learning from failure don’t wait until they fail to start reflecting. Rather, they keep a practice journal or another method to gather data during projects even when they are going well, so they can see what went wrong and right and use their own experiences to keep improving how they approach their work.
- Accountability: Because of the feelings of shame that failure engenders, our instinct is to get rid of those negative emotions by putting the blame on others, rather than taking responsibility by acknowledging our mistakes. Paradoxically, however, focusing on your own contribution to a problem can help lead to a solution. “Ask, ‘What did I do or not do that could have made a difference in preventing the undesired outcome?’” Edmondson suggests. “It’s hard to do, but it’s also empowering because it gives you agency that you can then redeploy going forward.”
- Apologizing: In cases where your failure led to harm, intentionally or unintentionally, to someone else, it’s important to apologize. Again, Edmondson says, the trick is to keep the focus on your contribution to the failure, clearly expressing remorse, accepting responsibility, and offering to change or make amends, rather than making excuses or digging in your heels.
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