"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

Failure. What feelings does that single word evoke for you? Maybe it triggers a memory of a recent misstep. Or maybe it's a big gaffe you made early in your career that still makes you cringe today. There are plenty of management books and articles that talk about how important it is that we “embrace" failure as a necessary part of learning and growing, but few take a deep dive into what it takes to learn from failure successfully.

Professor Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School summed up the problem this way:

“The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated."

There's a lot to unpack in that sentence. Dr. Edmonson, who championed the idea of “psychological safety," observes responses to failure are both emotional and operational.

Let's start with the emotional side. In the opening paragraph, I asked you to remember a time when you failed and how that felt. You likely had a visceral reaction to that memory because we are all taught from an early age that failure is bad. Someone whose opinion we cared about, like a parent or favorite teacher, was disappointed by our mistake. Maybe we were reprimanded and admonished to “don't do that again" or “make better choices."

As a result, we felt shame, embarrassment and/or self-doubt. We quickly learned to try to avoid failure or at least to avoid accepting responsibility for something that went wrong. Instead, we look for someone or something to blame.

Adults may react to failure with anxiety or a sense of hopelessness, or fear being held accountable for the failure, even if it could not have single-handedly been avoided. We may also be concerned about the failure resulting in our manager or peers lacking trust or confidence in our abilities going forward.

Behavioral scientists point to a variety of responses to failure aimed at self-protection, that is, mitigating negative feelings, such as justification, downplaying the consequences or even something they call “self-handicapping" in which the individual expresses that he/she had low expectations in the first place. While all of these responses may help us feel better, none of them set us up particularly well for learning and growing from our mistakes.

Moving from self-protection to self-improving requires reflection and psychological safety. While some negative emotion to failure can help motivate us to do better next time, our chances of actually improving go up significantly if reflecting on and learning from failure have been explicitly encouraged and enabled.

Dr. Edmondson shares that leaders must cultivate a culture where their teams recognize that some failure is bound to happen and are encouraged to bring failures forward, analyze them and invite suggestions for correction or improvement. To do so, organizations need to separate failure from fault, or in other words, drop the “blame game."

She clarifies that the reasons for failure fall upon a spectrum—from praiseworthy (such as exploring options and testing hypotheses that may lead to valuable new insights) to blameworthy (deliberate violations of policies) and teams need context to know where their type of work (and potential failure) falls on that spectrum. Yet, too many times, organizations tend to treat all or most failures as blameworthy. Dr. Edmondson urges leaders to view failures in three broad categories to help enable a learning culture:

  1. Failures in routine operations that can be prevented.

  2. Failures in complex operations that can be managed but not avoided entirely.

  3. Intelligent failures from unexpected or unwanted outcomes that are still valuable because they bring new insights or information to light.

Five Strategies for Creating Psychological Safety That Enable Learning From Failure

  1. Provide context or framing. Identify at the outset what types of failures may happen within the work setting or project and state your expectation of learning from them.

  2. Do better than just not shooting the messenger. Celebrate and encourage those who speak up with questions, concerns, or reports of mistakes. If debriefs or “after action" reviews are already part of your culture, examine whether the follow-through on the areas for improvement that surfaced is happening, and if not, why.

  3. Be up front about limitations. Be open as a leader about your lack of familiarity with a situation or subject area, readily acknowledge past mistakes, and ask for help from your team.

  4. Dig deeper into the why not who. Take the time to do root cause analyses to get to the heart of the mistakes that occurred versus stopping short at superficial explanations. Bring your curiosity and patience.

  5. Set the rules and enforce them. Be clear and direct about what the boundaries are as well as the consequences for acting outside of them, such as deliberately violating cooperative policies or acting recklessly. While it may seem incongruous, psychological safety actually increases when teams know what actions are on the blameworthy end of the failure spectrum.

Failure can be a powerful teacher. Personally, we can become more resilient, develop better coping skills, and gain the confidence that comes from working through adversity and challenges. At an organizational level, being able to learn from failure can ultimately raise performance and enable more innovation by enabling relatively safe experiments that unlock newfound wisdom. I hope this article has helped you consider failure in a more positive light.

Want to learn more? Here are some additional resources for you:

Courses from NRECA's employee and supervisor certificate programs:

Tracey Steiner is NRECA's senior vice president for education, training and events. Her 29-year career at NRECA has spanned a variety of roles starting in communications and marketing positions, then 15 years as an attorney focusing on cooperative governance and public policy issues before moving to Education, Training & Events in 2012.