If you had no fear, what would you say about failure in organizations?
Our first episode features Liz Wiseman and Todd Kashdan, who fearlessly take on this question.
- Liz is an executive advisor and author of several bestelling books, including a Box of Crayons favourite, Impact Players.
- Todd is a curiosity expert and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He's also the author of The Art of Insubordination.
I live in the heart of Silicon Valley where everybody likes to talk about failure and extoll the virtues of failure, fail fast, fail forward, move fast, break things. But, honestly, failure is not a great business strategy anywhere. But what is is experimentation and learning that leads to innovation and success. So here's the practice.
As leaders, carve out a space for experimentation. In any operation, there's places where we can't really afford failure. These are like the freeways of the organization where we can't take big, bold risks and make mistakes, like little risks and mistakes can end up really costly because things are moving fast, and it's intense. Declare the freeways in the organization, but also declare the playgrounds of the organization.
These are the parts of the business or operation where people can take risks, experiment, make mistakes and fail, but recover from those failures without business-damaging, brand-damaging, career-damaging kinds of mistakes. Let people know where the freeways are. Let people know where the playgrounds are, where innovation can flourish. That's how you create safety for people to go big.
Practice number two, create stretch. Give someone a challenge or maybe give a whole team a challenge that's a size or two too big, something that's challenging, but just doable. I like to think of these perfect stretch challenges as something that's doable enough that people are willing to start it, but hard enough that we can't finish it without some stretch, some reach, some learning and some growth.
Now as a leader or the coach, you can sit back and try to figure out what's that perfect degree of challenge that someone's ready for, or you can be a little bit more curious and help that person set that level of stretch for themselves. You might ask some simple questions like, what's the challenge that you feel ready for right now? What feels a little bit daunting, but just doable? Or you might ask a simple question, which is, what's the challenge you wish someone would give you right now? Set that stretch for the team.
Creating an environment that is both safe and full of stretch in which individuals feel safe to experiment and recover from failure and challenged to perform at their best is one of the fundamental jobs of leaders inside organizations. When leaders create these dual conditions of safety and stretch, people think bigger. And when coupled with the right coaching practices, employees learn faster, they get stronger and they grow beyond what they and you thought was possible. So create safety and create stretch and watch what grows.
If we were able to excise fear from individuals in an organization would good things, bad things or nothing happen as a result? Now there would be some positive consequences of having fearless people in organizations in terms of their mental health. But in terms of creativity, curiosity, and courage, these are virtues or psychological strengths that hinge on the presence of some level of fear.
So think about curiosity, the willingness to explore the uncertain, the mysterious, the new, the complex. The fear at a moderate level is what makes you notice things, it makes you see new possibilities that happen there, as opposed to sticking to the equilibrium of how things are, what you habitually do and what everyone else is doing. The anxiety is a mobilization of energy to look at things differently, think about things differently, and go out and explore.
You might escape, hide and try to avoid these situations, but it's also, which is a little bit of willpower, you move towards the exploration process. And when it comes to courage, it's defined as the willingness to take action despite the presence of fear. A firefighter doesn't get to say they're courageous if they have no fear inside their body. They could do something morally virtuous, but it's not an act of courage because there is no sacrifice there.
When we think about problems in an organization and we think of, if the idea I'm having is so smart and wise, why aren't other people doing this first? That fear that you alone are not doing something creative or intelligent or wise, but are actually the imbecile in the bunch, that fear is the indicator that maybe, just maybe this is worth exploring.
These emotions are hardwired in us as humans because they motivate us to engage in particular behaviours. Take away the fear, take away some of our mental fortitude that allows us to be so curious, so courageous, so creative that we end up being indispensable members of an organization. While it's painful, it's the shortcut to our own personal evolution and it's also the shortcut for the group becoming smarter and wiser.