Permission to fail? The unconventional answer to leadership challenges

Failure. A word that for many of us can invoke feelings of anxiety. A word that, admittedly, we try not to use. Case in point: I for one, tend to replace the word with “learning” or “opportunity to grow”: words and phrases that offer a slightly different lens on the concept, but still at the end of the day, dance around the word.

Why? Because I’m a millennial, and part of a generation who don’t know how to fail. In fact, it goes beyond that: I’m part of a collective of two generations who don’t know how to fail (hello, Gen Z). 

While we know that some of the greatest achievements in history have been born out of failure, we still struggle with the concept.  And yes, most of us do probably know of the stories or quotes of some of the greatest leaders in history who encourage us to make mistakes (we only have to type into the search engine “greatest leaders who have failed” and see results like Henry Ford, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln who all share musings on the pathway to success being littered with failures).

But the problem is, despite knowing this, we still live in a world where failure isn’t as warmly embraced, like “success” and “achievements” are. Not helped, of course, by generational specific influences.

Brought up by parents who are so invested in our lives, we’re encouraged to strive for the best, promised we can be do or have anything we want, just so long as we work for it. Coupled with technology that is controlling our lives, taking away the need to think, to make decisions, and acting in some parts as an extension of the brain. Social media fueling the highlight reels of others’ lives, no glimpse of anything failure-like being posted. Pressure to achieve from parents, from society, to have “figured it out already”. All the while, the internal conflict keeping us awake at night: paralysed by fear of too many options, or not enough, internal dialogue eating away as we grapple with “what should I do” vs “what I want to do”, agonizing over making the ‘wrong decision’ and, therefore, not making a decision at all, worrying about what people think… because god forbid, we can’t fail!

A societal issue that has been bred through upbringing and past and current conditioning.

Now, where I’m going with this, is the impacts this type of conditioned culture has in the workplace. And specifically, how this translate into some of the challenges being faced by leaders, especially those who are managing younger gens. Challenges like: employees aren’t showing enough initiative, can’t (or won’t) make decisions, have to ask for guidance (permission) on everything – all of which translates into general frustration of “Why can’t they just get on with the job already?!”

It’s a large generational elephant in the room that a lot of leaders aren’t aware of. 

So what can be done?

As leaders, start by implementing a permission to fail culture in the workplace. Encourage your people to make mistakes, to fall down, and to fail. Celebrate failure as you would success. Then use the failure not just to learn, but as an opportunity to build collaboration with teams.

Not only will this type of culture help encourage your younger gens to feel comfortable about dipping their toes into a water of “being ok with failure”, but I can guarantee, when they feel safe to do so, you’ll see more innovation and new ideas bouncing through your business then you can imagine.