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Celebrating Failures

I still remember the afternoon I learned to ride a two-wheel bicycle. After removing the training wheels, my father situated me on the seat and, with the promise of his firm grip on the bike, sent me on my way. After pedaling down the driveway, I looked back, still expecting to see him holding on to the bike. Realizing he was now several yards behind, I panicked and fell. You probably had a similar experience.

Now, what did my father do? Did he say, "Well, obviously you're not cut out for this?" Of course not. He shouted, "Great job! You got all the way down the driveway! You just looked away. Now let's see if you can make it down to the corner." In other words, he celebrated my efforts, told me what caused my fall, and encouraged me to try again, this time with a new goal. Then he added, "Don't worry. I'm right here if you fall again."

The first fundamental in helping employees learn from their failures is getting them to recognize how and why they failed. But if you instead practice the forgive-and-forget model, a coaching opportunity will be lost. Or worse, if you criticize or condemn, employee initiative will dwindle.

I tell leaders to celebrate the failures of workers who venture outside their comfort zones. By using such a strategy, leaders provide employees with a safe forum for them to acknowledge their failures, making the analysis of what went wrong less threatening. They also reward employees for leaving their comfort zones. Perhaps most importantly, celebrations inoculate employees against the pain of failure while encouraging future risk taking.

Help your employees understand that failures are both inevitable and permissible. When they fall off their two-wheelers, pick them up, dust them off, wipe away any tears, and put them back on their bikes—with your promise to remain close behind as they try again.

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