We are not our failures, no, but our jobs need more transparency there

We are not our failures

The expression “we are not our failures,” seen both throughout literature and in The Castle Builders’ song La Dispute, can easily be argued. The whole notion of a screaming football coach, for example, is that you — and very much so in fact — are your failure. You brought it upon yourself. Now go deal with it.

The organizational approach to failure is very fraught. I’ve discussed this before, and so have numerous people way smarter and more observant of organizations than I. This largely comes about for a few reasons. First and most obviously, most first-world cultures are cultures of achievement. Achievement-driven cultures tend to value answers/solutions/victories over questions/moments of doubt/failures, even though there are many data-backed arguments for successful companies emerging almost directly from the hands of failure.

Just using sheer logic, it would be hard to separate “success” from “failure.” If you’ve never failed, how would you properly constitute what success looks like? And if you’ve never failed, how would you have those driving force moments that lead towards success?

But now we need to quickly bring psychology in here.

In many families, failure is an off-limits topic, along with stuff like sex, money, and religion. (I mean off-limits externally; sometimes families can handle this internally, but even that is rare.) So many white-collar world-builders, i.e. dudes like Trump, go through their entire lives never really having a connection to failure as a discussion point. Because even when they fail (bankruptcy, bad years, lawsuits, etc.), the lack of transparency around the failure means there’s no potential for growth or new approaches from the failure.

See how this could all become a problem? It’s by no means just a guy like Trump. Many white-collar workaholics come up in this way. Achievement means suppressing discussions around failure, because they seem diametrically opposed.

This is where we need a new narrative.

We are not our failures, but our work cultures should acknowledge failure

This is a good article from UVA about “strategic buckets.” The overall concept is a tiny bit dumb, so I won’t go super deep into it, but this quote at the end has resonance:

All this is to say: Humans do not do well with loss. Failure is a loss. Losses hurt more than gains. And as a result, organizations generally have some implicit penalty for failure, be it through status, association, promotion, pay or something else. When penalties are high, though, the opportunities for innovation are reduced. Therefore, the more an organization can do to increase its tolerance for failure, the better.

This is a crucial point.

On the penalties for failure

If you know the penalties for failure in your company are high — either extrinsically (you can get fired) or intrinsically (you won’t have a chance at any personal growth) — then logically, I would ask myself two questions:

  • Why would I ever go out on a limb here or propose something new?
  • Wouldn’t it just make more sense to put my head down, do work, and look at other opportunities?

This is the exact intersection point where “company culture” falls to absolute feces. While I fully realize most executives don’t care about the culture of the place they manage, this right here is why it does matter.

We dress up “culture” in many different terms and definitions, OK? But here’s what it really means:

What are the permissible behaviors and what happens when those behaviors are not met?

If you have execs who lie and steal and no one checks them — but the company makes money — then that’s your culture. I don’t care what you say in meetings. You have a dishonest, unchecked culture. If you have a culture where any single point of failure gets an employee yelled at, and the manager doing the yelling subsequently thinks of that as “accountability,” well, you have a shitty culture.

The bottom line

If you want to be supposedly innovative, people need the room to be creative — and that involves the room to fail.

Without a culture that has some tolerance for failure, you will not be innovative.

You may still win market share and beat your competitors, but it’s likely to be on cost and not innovation. You’ll probably confuse the two in press releases.

This is what executives say to themselves in the mirror every AM:

“I’m doubling our money and damn, I’m looking fine in this suit.”

Here’s what they should probably say:

“Money is important but I want these people and my company to grow. I realize we are not our failures, but I need to foster transparency around failure.”

I don’t think that second sentence has ever been uttered into a mirror by an executive, but maybe I’m inaccurate there.

We are not our failures necessarily. Admitting failure doesn’t mean our only outcome is failure. Admitting failure just means we have room to grow and be successful. That works personally and professionally. Embrace transparency around the bad parts and use it a lesson to build for the good ones.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. I think it may be my calling to remind nonprofit leaders that their culture should be “Money is important but I want these people and my company to grow. I realize we are not our failures, but I need to foster transparency around failure” and not “I’m doubling our money and damn, I’m looking fine in this suit”.

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