Learning vs failing: Five tips to encourage your employees

Written by Rhonda Honke, Invision Edge


When I was younger, experiments were saved for science class. We’d formulate some sort of hypothesis, mix a concoction in a beaker, heat it up and watch it overflow like lava. We’d document what we did, the results we achieved, and make a call as to whether or not we proved out our hypothesis. Sometimes we were right and sometimes we were wrong — regardless, we always learned something as a result.

So here is the burning question: why have we, as adults, become so afraid of failure? The answer: Because it requires us to be vulnerable, and that incites fear. The average organization encourages learning but frowns on failure — giving employees the message that they had better be sure their hypothesis is correct before they even test it.

So, if we believe experimentation is a valuable way to learn and innovate, here’s a few tips for leaders who want to encourage more of it in our organizations:

Tip #1: Start small – Give diverse teams of employees a problem to solve or identify an opportunity they can tackle with a small scale experiment. It doesn’t have to cost a lot for it to be a great learning experience.

Tip #2: Coach through the fear – Proposing, and then running, an experiment makes people feel vulnerable. They are ‘testing’ a theory they believe to be true. As a leader, it is your job to support employees by acknowledging the feelings they have while encouraging them to move forward in spite of that fear. If employees know they are supported no matter what, they are more likely to take a risk.

Tip #3: Lead by Example – Look for opportunities to run your own experiments, and, where possible, engage your team for support. If they see you trying things, they will feel more confident in stepping outside of their comfort zone too – particularly if not everything you try is wildly successful.

Tip #4: Celebrate learning, not just results – After an experiment, ask questions about what was learned through the experience before discussing the results. If we focus on learning first, no matter what the outcome, there was benefit in the experience.

Tip #5: Document the experiment – As we do more experimentation, others can learn from those who went ahead of them. By documenting the experience, we can capture learnings to share with others so they can build on rather than repeat past experiments.

Some of the most amazing innovations that surround us happened by trial and error, re-working and tweaking, and failing, learning, and then succeeding. Let’s encourage employees to put themselves out there and test their ideas without fear of repercussion if it doesn’t work out favourably. Let’s minimize fear and maximize learning by trying new things and learning in the process. And then let’s see what happens as a result.

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