Recalling success stories off the top of our heads is easy… we think of the astronomical rise to fame from the underdog entrepreneur or the extraordinary achievements of our peers that have shot to success. But can we just as easily recall stories of failure?

Research published this year by Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach from the University of Chicago finds that we have a positivity bias when it comes it comes to sharing our own achievements. We are much more inclined to share stories where we have succeeded than failed. But the research also suggests that this under-emphasis on failures isn’t helping us. While we might fear social evaluation, another key reason why people don’t share their failures in life is because we don’t always recognise the useful information that they give us.

Take this quote from Thomas Edison, for example, who cycled through 10,000 prototypes for a commercially viable lightbulb before landing on the right one:

“I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

In one of Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach’s studies, people participated in a short quiz where they were instructed to guess between two ancient symbols for different words (e.g. names of animals). For one question set, participants weren’t given any feedback at all on how well they had done and, for the other question set, participants were told that they hadn’t guessed any symbols correctly. Surprisingly, when asked which question set they felt they knew more about and could help others with, 70% of participants chose the question set where they hadn’t received any feedback. This was true even though they could easily figure out the right answers (out of two choices) based on the 0% score they had received from the other question set.

This research shows us that, on average, we just aren’t that great at recognising when our failures have taught us something, and how that knowledge will help other people. These failures might even lead us towards something great, as shown by Thomas Edison who is often dubbed one of the greatest inventors known to humankind.

So, it’s worth considering how we might shift our thinking about failure. But, before jumping in feet first, it’s also worth considering where each of our workplaces sit on the spectrum from ‘innovation’ to ‘execution’. Not all business models can afford to promote high levels of experimentation and your organisational attitude towards failure will inevitably reflect this. Regardless, making mistakes is a part of being human and we can all work to create psychologically safe spaces to learn from our mistakes.

As a starting point, you can check out our suggestions below for failing well:

For individuals:

  • Try to engage in mental contrasting as you set your goals; anticipating the barriers to your goal and normalising these as a part of the process makes you more likely to succeed and persevere in the long-run
  • Critically consider the failures you’ve already experienced in your life and what you can take from them going forward (remember to exercise self-compassion during this process; failure is a part of being human)
  • Familiarise yourself with other people’s failures. Give a listen to the famous failures podcast where well-known and highly successful people talk openly and candidly about their failures in life

For team leaders:

  • Whether your team is focused on innovation or execution, working to foster a workplace climate that prioritises psychological safety will allow your people to take risks, ask questions, express themselves, make mistakes, and ultimately perform at their best
  • Challenge the way you think about failure and shift away from playing the blame-game (for more on this, we recommend this piece from the Harvard Business Review)
  • Use your leadership platform to role model the behaviours you want to see in your team members when mistakes happen (e.g. accountability, transparency, and resilience)
  • Brainstorm and review how other companies like yours approach, and even celebrate, failure (start by browsing this list for ideas)

Umbrella is pleased to be offering a new workshop on psychological safety, helping teams to create a culture where people are safe to experiment, make mistakes, and be their authentic selves. Contact us to find out more.