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How we fail matters

What can we do to fail better? How can we overcome our fear of failure and create empowering workplaces?

I used to be an anxious person. For anyone who has experienced anxiety – it makes working efficiently harder. Everything is more difficult. Some of my past working environments really didn’t help this: part of it was putting myself in challenging environments; part of it was poor management or backbiting, snarky atmospheres. 

It is very anxious-making to be in an environment where people are waiting for you to fail. Where others’ mistakes are feasted on over lunch. Where you are incompetent until proven effective. As a manager I have never understood why you would hire someone and not invest in that person to succeed. In any organisation, the success of one contributes to the advancement of the organisation’s goals (or profits).

Does creating a dog-eat-dog environment make people work harder, or rather cripple them with stress? The danger of this approach is that we also don’t recognise those wonderful people who make everyone around them achieve more, even if they themselves aren’t the best. Their contributions are important and so often go unrecognised.

Does creating a dog-eat-dog environment make people work harder, or rather cripple them with stress?

How do we create environments where we allow people to fail in order for us all to succeed? I have had two personal experiences of this recently: my colleague made a mistake and I made a potentially huge mistake. Because we were able to discuss it we were able to problem-solve both. Not only that, we have learnt how not repeat these mistakes, and improved our work practices and internal systems. And hopefully this means no-one else will make the same mistake.

More importantly, it means that if someone else does something foolish, they know that they can speak up, ask for help, and we can solve it. We’re a team. We are only going to achieve everything we can at WONDER Foundation to improve the lives of women and girls if we can each draw on each others’ strengths and talents. 

The consequence of making it impossible for people to admit fault and failure isn’t just the lost opportunity to learn or effectively problem-solve. The blame game creates a toxic culture. When we make it impossible to admit fault we create an environment where failure must be assigned to someone else. This can create a lack of trust that impedes good and timely communication. It prevents creativity. It rewards anxiety-making behaviour. The consequence of which, for so many, is ineffective working.

How do we overcome fear of failure and create environments that encourage people to try new things?

How do we overcome fear of failure and create environments that encourage people to try new things? To take (good) risks? To evaluate those risks by having the confidence to share their ideas and explore them without fear that they will be stolen or pooh-poohed by someone who doesn’t want to be overshadowed? How do we affirm people in their successes and competences? Would this be the secret to overcoming the “imposter syndrome” that so many women say that they experience?

In an organisation led by, and consisting of, a staff of women, perhaps this is easier. Not that we do it perfectly. We’re a small, busy, stretched team. We get tired and impatient. We fail. No-one enjoys failing. But a collaborative environment does seem to be a female mode of operation, as opposed to testosterone-driven competition. This is something we have been exploring with young women as part of our EU-funded Red:GLOW project. But many men also prefer collaborative environments. 

How do we foster purposeful workplace relationships? So many women in my network share experiences of when they have unexpectedly offended someone’s feelings, and found that it’s been escalated without anyone asking for their side of the story. In doing this (sometimes a pre-emptive power play, when someone is afraid of being accused of failure) no one benefits. If there’s been an abuse, by all means complain. But we should create environments where we can apologise and make up, without creating a whirlwind of grievance where everyone feels victimised.

How do we foster purposeful workplace relationships?

We should create environments where people can say, “when you said that it upset me…” “did you realise that that could be misinterpreted”. This is a teachable moment. If we do something that offends one person or is liable to be misunderstood, it is unlikely to be deliberate. Most people aren’t malicious. In addressing it then, it prevents future damage. Offending and confusing makes every organisation inefficient. It wastes time, it creates anxiety and emotional upset. That’s in no-one’s interest!

I’m so grateful to have been able to manage my anxiety. I’d love to share how: it’s half a mystery, half my amazing colleagues, and involved taking a sabbatical last summer and falling in love with WONDER’s work all over again. I love working with supportive colleagues: it’s brilliant having a team where someone’s good at the things I’m not! 

So what can we do to fail better? What do you think would help you to thrive at work and allow you to bring your colleagues up with you?

Author: Olivia Darby, Director of Policy and Campaigns, WONDER Foundation.