Dealing With Failure At Work

Giving people permission to fail can encourage innovation and build resilience and psychological safety in the workplace. This concept of trial and error development is in sync with improving the employee experience and trusting people to grow into their roles and speak out when they see a problem or opportunity.

Unfortunately, ‘failure’ has an image problem that is difficult to shake. A 2002 Harvard Business Review article – ‘The Failure-Tolerant Leader’ – stated: “While companies are beginning to accept the value of failure in the abstract—at the level of corporate policies, processes, and practices—it’s an entirely different matter at the personal level. Everyone hates to fail.”

The leading business thinker Matthew Syed may have modernised the failure debate with black box thinking, but that pathological need to be good at your job and validated by others remains. As many managers see their team members as a reflection of their reputation and performance, their failure-tolerance may be friendly, formal then final.

This much pressure can revoke the permission to fail and make it a precursor for dismissal or survival with a damaged reputation. Understanding the causes and emotional impact of failure can help organisations either prevent it or tackle it with empathy and professionalism.

Why people fail and how it makes them feel

Shola Kaye, an award-winning speaker on inclusion and communication, says, “When an employee’s work isn’t up to scratch it’s relatively easy to blame them for their under performance and the impact this is having on the team or project. What can be much harder is for the company to examine its culture, working practices and quality of communication to establish its role in the failure.”

Kaye, who gives masterclasses on empathy in the workplace, often uses her experience of bouncing back from a poor performance review to succeed in her career to increase awareness of how failure feels. “It was incredibly stressful to be seen as a failure. Perhaps I should feel grateful that I wasn’t dismissed. On the other hand, I did not receive any training or an official mentor to help me with my predicament, so more could have been done to support me.”

Nicola Lyle, an executive coach for leaders and managers says, “Employees often fail because they have received little to no training, haven’t been given clear directive on business or managerial expectations and therefore have been inadvertently set up to fail by their manager. Inadvertently because no-one sets out to do this, it is frequently a time and pressure issue on the behalf of the manager. Equally it might simply be that the employee has misinterpreted the importance of the work they are doing, being easily side-tracked into something more interesting, or just produced substandard work.”

How to support employee success

Lyle emphasises the importance of managers providing a clear job description and tailoring their support to an employee’s experience and needs. However, it’s “creating an environment of trust where performance problems can be discussed openly, not hidden away” that can be decisive in tackling the failure predicament and helping the employee improve.

Lyle’s advice for managers:

  • Communicate exactly what is required and provide ongoing support. Don’t assume an employee will know everything by virtue of their role.
  • Provide the employee with the resources and training for the job.
  • Set the goal posts for what good looks like to ensure fairness and consistency.
  • Allow the employee enough time to deliver and help manage the role and project pressures.
  • Build a relationship based on trust, understand their needs and work style, and allow questions.

Lyle’s advice for employees:

  • Be honest about your capabilities and suitability for the role.
  • Face the problem and be open about what is making your job difficult and what support you need.
  • Accept feedback, and show commitment to learning your job and achieving success.

Can but won’t or can’t but willing

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Whatever the reason for failure, managers need to establish if an employee can do the job but won’t, or can’t do the job but are willing. Be supportive but transparent on what will happen if the employee does not meet their performance objectives, both in what they do and how they do it.

Lyle says, “If someone is a great cultural fit and you have done everything to train and coach this person, yet they still can’t do the job, reassign them to a new role in the business, or let them go with dignity. If they have the skill set but won’t do the job, which is usually an attitude issue, adopt the Netflix value of ‘no brilliant jerks’ and allow them to find a more suitable environment in which to work, outside your organisation.”

Failure is a learning experience for everyone involved. Open the ‘black box’ to understand why it happened and what can be done to avoid it happening again, then bury it and move on.


About the author

Paul Carter is a Senior HR Consultant at Civil Service Employee Policy in London. He has worked in HR for five years after spending 10 years in communications and committee management. He is CIPD qualified and writes HR blogs to encourage debate on how to make the world of work a better place. Writing and running help him manage his mental health and he is determined to raise awareness of what living with Pure OCD is like. He is always interested in meeting new people and exploring new opportunities.



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