Building on Thoughts from Experts: Mistakes and Failure

Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D.

This is part four of a multi-part Blog series on strengthening your team by building on thoughts from experts. The foundation for these articles derives from comments made by writers in the Harvard Business Review over the years to which I add my expertise and experience.

Have you ever made a mistake? Come on, admit it…everyone has at one time or another, right? Have you ever failed at anything? Maybe yes, maybe no…but likely yes. When we make mistakes or fail in our own endeavors, we go through the typical range of emotions unique to our character–disappointment, upset, anger, and others, but then we move on and either try to better the next time or find a way to accomplish goals that bypass our failure point. But…what about if those mistakes–or failures–were happening in the workplace with your employees?

Needless to say, the workplace environment can be significantly different from the environment in which you pursue your personal goals. Most people feel uncomfortable–or even threatened–when they make mistakes in the workplace. This fear derives from multiple potential consequences–losing the respect of their manager, losing the respect of peers, and perhaps most importantly to the individual psyche, the feeling that their reputation has been diminished in something that they consider a key skill set. Although people often feel this way when making a mistake, the reality in the workplace is that it can as much be a learning point.

Mistakes can equal Growth

When we interview and hire employees it is much the same as when we buy a house–we Employee-and-supervisor-shaking-hand_manager_mentorlook not only at what that candidate is but also project what the employee can become. We already know the key competencies of employees and expect them to perform those task well with little or no error. But you do not put employees in a position where they cannot grow to become more than they are now–and giving them tasks with which they are unfamiliar and may result in errors..or even an occasional failure early in the employee’s professional development. The bottom line here is that employees need to have both support and challenge in order to grow and sometimes errors present beneficial opportunities for learning and growth for the employee and, potentially others.

182438616-supervisor-pc-occupation-occupied-kindlinessAs a leader, it is important to build the bridge between error and growth. To do this, you must create an environment where making mistakes is not demonized; rather, mistakes are used as learning points for the employee or, in some cases, for the greater good of the organization when they can be used with a broader scope of employees and processes (of course, you don’t let everyone know who made the mistake–that would be counter-productive and engender a more hostile work environment). Within reason, leaders should encourage employees to take risks but also be there to help them through errors or uncertainties along the way to completing their tasks. As with every learning opportunity, the leader must close the loop by discussing the learning points with the employee in a positive manner to ensure that the lesson is learned and not just memory of making a mistake.

A word of caution to leaders–not every mistake that can also be a learning opportunity is Managers-Warding-Off-Unsafe-Workplace-Culture-740x431also cost-effective. Sometimes, errors can cause excessive costs in capital, equipment, products, contracts, or–in the worst cases–human lives. These instances–and the potentially dire consequences associated with them–are not the proving ground for employee learning; rather, focus on less mission-critical tasks and goals with less severe consequences. Remember–this is where you help employees grow, so they are not the experts, they are the learners being groomed for a higher level of knowledge, understanding, and productivity.

The “F” Word

Employee-300x253Now let’s add another degree of difficulty to the equation. Somewhere in the vast space between micro-managing and a completely Laissez-faire approach exists the “sweet spot” where productivity and development meet. It is also in this vast space that most mistakes in leadership occur because of the many variables presented by the operational environment, both internal and external. but finding the right balance between all those variables is what you are charged with accomplishing as a leader…

And now the “F” word…FAILURE! As a leader, much like a parent, we do not want to see our employees make mistakes–or worse yet, fail. As a result, our conditioned reaction is to intercede and stop the mistake from happening–but that is not always the right move to make. You will have to recondition yourself to stop interfering! Let your employees make mistakes (but assess the risks of cost, damage, and life-threatening actions presented earlier) and then review the actions with the employee in a teaching moment that will help the employee grow. Of course, if the employee is about to make a mistake that can reflect 54f5fbc3f07a4_-_1-manager-employee-desk-lgn-38254810badly on other employees as well, it may be time to step in–not to take over the task, but to have the employee give you an update on how it is going and then nudge them in the right direction by leading them through some critical thinking about the progress so far and the proposed way ahead. In many cases, this can present an “Aha” moment that provides a lesson to the employee without embarrassment to the employee, their peers, or leadership.

To Conclude…

As a leader, be prepared to watch as your people make mistakes and learn lessons–in the short-term it may be very uncomfortable, but in the long-term, the result may be a cadre of more effective employees who have developed keener critical thinking skills along the way. This benefits both the employee and the organization…a WIN-WIN!

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Join me next week for the fifth post in this series: Feedback and Communication.


Want to know more about executive leadership? I facilitate a half-day executive seminar that brings concepts to the table for collaborative exercises and application to your organization’s needs. Check out our offerings here or call 866.399.8287 to find out more from a representative today!


Harvard Business School. (2011). Management tips from Harvard Business Review. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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