We live in a culture that fixates on success. With personal and professional failures often filtered from our radar, we’re positioned only to appreciate the peaks in life’s journey — shying away from all valleys with fearful avoidance.
Yet it’s hardly a secret that some of the most successful entrepreneurs failed before achieving remarkable results. The late Steve Jobs was famously terminated from his own company before Apple became a household name. James Dyson created thousands of faulty, nonfunctional prototypes before patenting his best-selling vacuum. So, why do we forget the silver linings of these legendary failures when confronted with our own mistakes?
For starters, a constructive attitude comes easily when looking back in the hindsight of success. We know Jobs and Dyson didn’t fail forever, so their past mistakes might seem obsolete. But believe it or not, both innovators would caution against overlooking their errors. Through determination and self-assurance, they learned to thrive in the face of rejection — repurposing each failure into an opportunity to adjust, improve, and eventually succeed.
Failure is not a dirty word.
At Goodwin, we dare to say it’s essential to success. When organizational leaders stop idealizing perfection, they foster professional development, establish psychological safety, and create an environment where employees can thrive.
Cancelling the culture of success
A positive attitude can carry you through the worst of times. But have you ever had a friend or colleague who was just too positive? Sure, you can keep your chin up during a rough week at work, but a rosy outlook isn’t the solution to every problem. Besides, you’re allowed to feel upset when facing frustrating or stressful circumstances — you deserve the space necessary to address your emotions.
#ToxicPositivity is a phenomenon in which people stifle any feelings deemed to be negative — regardless of how justified grief, anger, or anxiety may be. A culture of success is quite similar, but it occurs in a professional setting. Rather than inspiring employee growth and satisfaction, a culture of success values perfection more than anything else. Although results are critical to any company’s performance, cultures of success trade high achievement for low morale — rewarding the positive while excessively punishing any perceived failure.
Like many ineffective workplace practices, a culture of success boils down to misguided supervision. Rather than inspiring collaboration, success-driven management creates a competitive culture fraught with stress. Dominated by an ever-present fear of punishment, workers feel little loyalty towards their company or colleagues. Aside from low morale and poor collaboration, this results in a high turnover rate — making it difficult for managers to maintain their employees or encourage them to aspire to future leadership roles.
Imagine you’re a member of the janitorial staff at a public school. Although the school is spick and span by the end of the day, you’re the only team member pulling their weight. You spend every shift sweeping and buffing the floors, disposing of trash, and cleaning all the bathrooms. The other janitors only perform the less strenuous tasks — consistently leaving the most difficult work to you. Because your supervisor assesses your team’s success solely on the school’s cleanliness, they’re oblivious to how little your coworkers contribute. Would you be likely to continue working in this role, or would you be tempted to look for a job elsewhere?
How does a culture of failure inspire success?
When you first hear the phrase “culture of failure,” it might sound a little scary. But stick with us.
Whereas a culture of success emphasizes the importance of “winning”, a culture of failure values employee growth as a victory in its own right — accepting that mistakes are intrinsic to eventual success.
For leaders and workers alike, embracing a culture of failure is often a matter of self-reflection, requiring us to reexamine how we define success. Is it a team of passionate employees who always put their best foot forward? Is it everyone — including leadership — feeling as though their work makes a meaningful difference? While such factors aren’t easily measured, they’re surely signs of a positive and collaborative workplace.
Furthermore, a culture of failure is unafraid to ask questions. When employees are underperforming or missing the mark, leaders should ask why rather than resort to punitive measures. This approach turns errors into teaching moments — helping workers learn, grow, and thrive in the future.
Above all else, leadership that embraces failure enhances cooperation among colleagues. When employees aren’t pressured to be perfect, creativity and collaboration blossom. Aside from boosting a team’s collective performance, comradery motivates employee loyalty and longevity — sometimes even inspiring the next generation of leaders.
You’re a shift supervisor at a restaurant. Recently, you noticed that the newest waitress has been late to her 4:00 shift every Friday. Rather than discipline her tardiness, you have a constructive conversation — inquiring why she’s struggling to arrive on time and asking what you can do to help. She explains that she works a second job across town until 3:30, making it difficult to reach the restaurant promptly. Instead of terminating her or suggesting she quit her other job, you adjust her start time to 4:30 — allotting her an extra half hour to safely commute to her evening shift.
Fault vs failure
Part of redefining failure is differentiating it from fault. Whereas failure is defined by not achieving an intended outcome, fault refers to one’s responsibility in causing a failure to occur.
This idea might be a little confusing, so let’s clarify. If a well-meaning employee researches an idea for a new organizational system that doesn’t pan out, the idea has failed. However, considering that the employee made an informed suggestion in good faith, they aren’t necessarily at fault for the idea’s failure — their proposed solution simply didn’t meet their company’s needs.
On the other hand, if an employee plainly refuses to use an organizational system and their attitude causes a project to fail, they may be at fault. While you should never assume culpability outright, this would warrant a conversation with said team member.
For leaders, differentiating these concepts is critical to supporting their teams’ success. When employees can take informed and well-intended risks without fear of discipline, leaders make room for innovation, progress, and employee growth.
You’re a medical assistant supervising a small team in a private healthcare clinic. Your office utilizes a filing system that’s ten years out of date. Consequently, it takes an unnecessarily long time to retrieve patient information, generate invoices, and perform other necessary tasks. One of your employees recently learned about a new software system, which is reportedly more efficient for private clinics. Eager to increase your team’s efficiency, you embrace the new system. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the unnavigable new software is hardly the user-friendly filing solution your staff was waiting for. Should you fault the team member who suggested it or appreciate their initiative and troubleshoot a more effective plan?
At Goodwin University, our MSOL program is designed to unleash your inner leader — helping you overcome imposter syndrome, learn what makes you tick, and inspire others by example. Check out our free MSOL Get Started Guide to learn how Goodwin can help you blossom into the leader you were always meant to be!
A culture of failure is a culture of growth
Failure isn’t unlike a 5 a.m. jog on a Saturday morning; it might feel rough while you’re in the thick of it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t serving a purpose.
Like many measures we take to improve our well-being, even the most unpleasant failures can be healthy in the long run. When plans don’t go as we hoped or anticipated, we reflect on our decision-making process and adjust our understanding.
Doing so alters the makeup of our minds. Based on what we learned from our failures, our brains create and maintain new neural pathways — helping us avoid the same mistakes in the future, grow more resilient, and, eventually, find success.
In addition to supporting cognitive growth, failure strengthens professionalism. When failure ceases to be a shameful experience, leaders and their teams rely on open and honest communication — inviting questions and dialogue about ideas for improvement.
When leaders establish a safe space for these collaborative conversations, creative solutions and innovative ideas can begin taking form. Moreover, these conversations can help leaders understand the major and minor issues affecting their workers. Aside from yielding potential solutions, these insights provide supervisors with a holistic perspective on their workplace, its culture, and its efficiency.
You supervise the first shift at a local convenience store. The shop owner recently commended you for leading the highest-performing team on-staff. However, she expressed concern about the second shift supervisor, whose team struggles to achieve comparable results. Aside from having a high turnover rate, customers routinely remark on how frustrated and overwhelmed his team appears to be. Your fellow supervisor has had several punitive sit-downs with the group, but the problems have persisted. The owner is now asking you to meet with your colleague to brainstorm strategies for supporting the second shift team. What are some recommendations you might offer him?
It doesn’t happen overnight
The benefits to embracing a culture of failure are almost limitless. In addition to promoting a safe and positive work environment, employees thrive when their professional growth is prioritized above rote achievement.
Workers who are free to fail push creative boundaries and collaborate to develop innovative ideas. Leaders set the precedent for establishing a growth-oriented culture. So, what can you do to support a culture of failure? Here are a few tips:
- Employees appreciate it when their leaders are transparent. Practice open and honest communication to build trust and rapport with your team.
- Encourage workers to experiment with new ideas on a smaller scale first.
- If an idea doesn’t work as planned, troubleshoot solutions and provide prompt feedback. This will help employees move past the mistake — and learn from it, too!
- Maybe a great idea just didn’t work for your office — that doesn’t mean the effort, teamwork, and collaboration isn’t worth celebrating! By finding opportunities to embrace and celebrate failure, you support professional growth and build kinship amongst employees.
- Workers take cues from their leaders. By demonstrating that you’re willing to take educated risks — even if they fail — you encourage your employees to push the envelope, too. Moreover, this sets an important precedent: if a well-meaning idea fails, it’s okay.
You’ve hired a new employee who seems rather anxious about making mistakes. Although they’ve excelled in the face of every challenge thus far, they continue asking if their performance is up to par. As a leader, what can you do to build their confidence and encourage innovation?
What it means to lead
Being a leader isn’t only about leaving your mark on a company or organization — it’s also a matter of inspiring, challenging, and uplifting others. Aside from taking failure in stride, leaders must know how to turn mistakes into meaningful opportunities for personal and professional growth.
At Goodwin University, we believe that great leaders grow leaders. That’s why our flexible MSOL program is designed to address every dimension of leadership. Through a comprehensive curriculum taught by expert faculty, you’ll learn to lead by example — embracing your personal and professional strengths while gaining the skills necessary to foster generations of future leaders.