How to Learn From Failure

Man in suit with goatee at desk

One of the hardest lessons is how to learn from failure. The measure of success isn’t failure itself, but persistence. Planning to fail is no good but planning for failure is another thing entirely. It’s important to model positivity and problem solving, which you can’t do without adversity of some kind. That means being honest, in a productive way, about your failures and mistakes.

As a manager, it’s important to celebrate our wins. What’s more important, and harder, is dealing with adversity. Let’s look at ways you can better support your staff through the good and the bad.

Failing at Work Is Only the Beginning

Essentially, your job in managing failure is about having a growth mindset and imparting that perspective to your workers. Passing on less-than-positive or otherwise unhelpful habits is one of the classic management mistakes you’ll want to avoid. That’s why it’s important to be honest with yourself and your workers about the effects, positive and negative alike, you are producing when you work with risk.

Just as important, however, is establishing a “sandbox” or safety buffer so that the mistakes and failures don’t have negative consequences for everyone. For example, we might start new campaigns with small budgets so that lessons learned don’t impact the overall business.

Reframe Failure and Boost Your Business

Reframing failure can boost your brand by showcasing your calculated risks and creating an inherently more exciting culture. Attempting something worthy, having that effort fail, analyzing what happened, then using what was learned to improve the business is crucial to change without mission creep. It’s about learning from failure, and that means learning to succeed.

Failing at work, of course, is not the goal. Instead, it can become a means to build your employer brand. Internally, you want management to be known as magnanimous and understanding, and you need to act upon those values to build that reputation. Likewise, the innovation and positive culture that result from risk-taking can have a great effect on your brand outside the company.

Include Risk-Taking in Hiring and Company Values

Encourage your team to act boldly. During the hiring process, screen for those same characteristics. The interview process presents the opportunity to find out if potential employees have experience in risk-taking. This is also helpful in finding out how your future employee reacts to stress, failure, adversity, and imperfection—all of which are natural parts of business and require resilience.

If you haven’t made any mistakes lately, you aren’t pushing yourself to think and work outside the box. That is true for job candidates as well as established employees (and managers): An interviewee who claims to have never made a mistake, or cannot remember doing so, is probably not someone you can trust to uphold your company’s values.

Let Leaders Demonstrate How to Learn From Failure

Acceptance of failure as an opportunity to learn must begin with leadership. It takes courage to model that behavior. Sharing stories of past failures can help pinpoint people’s mental models about how the organization should operate and their ideals of good and bad decision-making.

Employees may be hesitant to risk failure at first, but eventually they’ll understand it represents courage, trust, and helpfulness toward the team. It may take some time for employees to be comfortable sharing their failures at work, but encouragement can remind them to stay strong.

Make It Clear You Will Still Manage Bad Performance

By focusing on how to learn from failure at work, the challenge is striking a balance between open ownership of mistakes and endorsement of recklessness. A line needs to be established by which employees are held accountable and can be helpfully retrained when and if the same mistakes recur.

The key is to keep retraining and management from seeming like an accusation or punishment. The truth is that everyone makes mistakes, and everyone should learn from them. Providing a safe place to land, in other words, is just as important as reminding your workers to fly—and maybe fall.

Encourage Employees to Think Like Scientists

The most important step in cultivating a culture of taking calculated risks is the “calculated” part. A risk being taken must be measured from the very beginning, with estimates for what is considered a success. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, as the saying goes, and you must be very clear about your successes for the process to work.

Accepting failure as a tool can be a catalyst for uncovering fresh perspective and unique problem-solving strategies in your organization. Measure your outcomes with calculated risk-taking and facilitate discussions of the process with team members.

With the Right Team, Failure Can Lead to Innovation

You can create a culture that embraces and learns from failing at work. It starts with finding the right people, and that means candidates who know how to learn from failure. With expert recruiting insights and management resources, Monster can help you find employees who can turn failure into success.