Celebrate and embrace failure!

By Dr Torkel Soma, SAYFR

SAYFR services – preparing leaders as role models for behaviours that over time create an atmosphere for employees to speak their mind
SAYFR services – preparing leaders as role models for behaviours that over time create an atmosphere for employees to speak their mind (photo: SAYFR)

Norwegians like to think that openness and trust are values embedded in society – values which help us to address concerns as well as to correct mistakes and what is wrong. However, in the past year alone, there have been several news stories about whistle-blowing cases that were not handled properly, concerning corrupt police, COVID-19 outbreaks, mosque attacks or #Metoo cases.

And this is, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg.

This month, October 13 is the international #DayForFailure. We all need a reminder to become better at sharing the mistakes and worries we have – and not least, listening to and supporting others who do the same!

We all make mistakes
Nobody wants to make a mistake, but we all do. Every day, in fact, every hour we all make more mistakes. The aviation industry may be the ones with the best overview on this topic. Pilots make about 5 mistakes an hour. Do you think you are better? Most people find it difficult to admit their own mistakes.

In addition, we are reluctant to address other people’s mistakes, especially if the mistake is a little sensitive.

Dealing with failure
So what do we really mean by “failure”? A failure is when we do not meet what is expected, required or desired. There may be innocent mistakes; like forgetting the original in the copier or misunderstanding what a colleague is saying. But mistakes can also be violations of the law or abuse of power. Mistakes do not have to lead to a disaster or cause an accident. But if they remain unaddressed, they can contribute to more serious incidents, accidents and crises.

In fact, in most crises and accidents, people have been aware of the mistakes long before things went wrong. The explosion in Beirut is a typical example of such an accident, where someone had repeatedly tried to get those responsible to do something about the enormous amount of ammonium nitrate stored in the port warehouse. In fact, most accidents could have been averted and most crises limited if one had been better at dealing with failures early on.

The heroes
We should greet whistle-blowers as heroes. Such a hero was actually names Blower. Captain Blower warned the management of his shipping company that the crew could not know if the bow gate was open or closed when they stood on the bridge of the ship. He himself had sailed twice with the bow visor wide open. Had the management listened to Captain Blower, the Herald of Free Enterprise would most likely only have been the name of a ferry, and not associated with an accident in which 193 people lost their lives.

Part of the problem is that most people have an aversion to failures. The ripple effects of this are that we neither admit nor talk about them. This makes it more difficult to correct and learn from them. When we are finally forced to address it, we quickly become clumsy and primitive in the way we address mistakes. The way #Metoo whistle-blowers were handled in various organisations are examples of this. When you do not handle mistakes in a good way, it becomes even more difficult to address mistakes at a later time. This can contribute to underreporting.

Beating perfectionism
We should be open about mistakes, not only to prevent crises and accidents. Perfectionism is becoming a public disease. Both young girls and boys set higher and higher demands on themselves and their own achievements. Not meeting expectations causes shame and humiliation. The result can be lower self-esteem, stress and shallower relationships with both friends and loved ones. It’s easy to believe that people will judge you if you share your own mistakes. There is a good chance that the exact opposite will happen. When a person is open about his own mistakes, he is no less trusted. On the contrary.

The irony of it all is that those who are seen as the most successful are often the ones who embrace failures – not perfectionism. Authors such as JK Rowling and Elizabeth Gilbert believe this is the key to performing as a writer over time.

According to a US survey, Google, Netflix, Amazon, and SpaceX are all in job seekers’ top 10 list of technology companies. They are large, innovative and successful. But they also have other things in common; entrepreneurs and CEOs who have a special relationship to failure. It’s not that they accept mistakes – they love them! Mistakes are actually an important part of their strategy and culture to ensure innovation and flexibility.

In the business world, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has recently published a book about the company’s corporate culture, “No Rules Rules”. One of the keys is openness about mistakes to contribute to creativity. The list of business leaders who openly embrace mistakes is much longer.

Failures can also lead to new discoveries. Alexander Fleming returned to work after vacation on September 3, 1928. He discovered development of mould on some samples he had in the office. When he studied them under a microscope, it turned out that the mould had killed the bacteria in the samples, which triggered the discovery of penicillin.

Embrace failure
In other words, we should embrace mistakes as if they were our best source of learning. In a culture that is open about mistakes, you are more creative, innovative and resistant to crises and accidents. In an environment where people talk openly about mistakes, people who commit crimes and abuse power will face early opposition.

You can help to admit your mistakes, and to maturely listen to others who share their mistakes. You may both learn something, get to know yourself and others better, and even have a good laugh. In other words: People, Embrace Failure!

“Sharing of mistakes and failure has a massive potential for an organisation in terms of learning, innovating and reducing risk of serious incidents” – Dr Torkel Soma is a Partner at SAYFR
“Sharing of mistakes and failure has a massive potential for an organisation in terms of learning, innovating and reducing risk of serious incidents” – Dr Torkel Soma is a Partner at SAYFR