Hands on or off: Why letting employees fail is key to their success

If you’ve ever put your foot into a bath of scalding water, it’s safe to say you probably haven’t done it since. Same goes for turning up to an interview in a woefully misguided outfit – you won’t soon forget those withering looks your no-longer-prospective employer shoots you and your flip flops from across the boardroom table. 

Mistakes are the ultimate teacher, conveying learnings far more expediently and efficiently than any instruction could hope to. After all, it’s only by understanding the real implications of our actions that we come to learn where our boundaries lie. As the old adage goes, ‘If you make no mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.’ 

Yet despite this, many businesses tend to employ a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to making gaffes and errors, assigning blame and punishment for even the simplest of slip-ups. As a result, employees are left without any flexibility to innovate and push boundaries, so fearful are they of the outcome of any action not expressly specified on their job description. 

Had this approach been applied back in Thomas Edison’s day, we would probably all still be flailing around in darkness, with the inventor’s ‘frivolous’ pursuit of light cast aside and disregarded as a time waster. Now just imagine all the other brilliant ideas that might have found fruition had the idea of imperfection not been so widely frowned upon. 

It’s important to remember that a mistake is not necessarily always a failure. When that mistake is landing a plane improperly or misjudging the load-bearing capacity of a pedestrian bridge, then yes, the two do go hand in hand. But the vast majority of mistakes employees make on a daily basis are anything but calamitous, and are in fact just a natural part of any learning process.  

No matter how much micro-managing you do, mistakes will happen whether you like it or not. But while you can’t avoid this inevitable reality, you can change the way you approach these errors, and in fact turn them to your advantage in the long-run. 

By establishing a more accepting, risk-friendly culture, you’ll be able to foster a far greater level of transparency and innovation within your organization, enabling your employees to fail forward and become more empowered in their roles. 

Are you willing to take a short-term risk to achieve long-term success? Here are a few tips to get you started:  

Define smart failure
Naturally there are certain areas of your business that you’d prefer not to fall victim to any type of failure, so it’s important that you first define the parameters of what constitutes productive mistake making. Ultimately, you want your employees to be more curious and innovative, but by giving them complete free rein you’ll only succeed in achieving the opposite. The idea here after all isn’t to encourage a flurry of thoughtless gaffes – the point is to encourage your workforce to experiment, living and learning from both their successes and shortcomings.  

Be transparent
Too often, businesses tend to adopt a selective approach towards internal communication, skirting over the uncomfortable stuff and instead presenting a glowing highlights package. Is it any wonder then that your employees are terrified of any type of misstep? By exercising complete transparency in all your communications – covering the good, the bad and the ugly – you’ll be able to demonstrate the value mistakes can ultimately offer up for business, and create a culture that isn’t averse to taking a few risks from time to time.  

Learn to let go
If you want to drive the development of a truly innovative culture, you’re going to have to take your hands off the steering wheel. Whilst it’s of course important that you offer your employees ample support, it’s equally vital that you give them opportunities to succeed and fail on their own, leaving room for growth and learning. So next time a member of your team comes to you with a question, think twice before offering up a quick fix – by withholding support from time to time, you’ll force your employees to think for themselves, and encourage them to make bold moves without the comfort of an omnipresent safety net.

Hands on or off: Why letting employees fail is key to their success

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