When things go wrong, successful leaders don’t look for someone to blame. They recognise that failure is essential for innovation. Effective leaders don’t waste time beating themselves up when things don’t go as planned. They do things differently by fostering a culture of psychological safety, creating a platform for sustainable performance to flourish.
Leadership Failure & Psychological Safety
Harvard behavioural scientist, Amy Edmondson, defines psychological safety as
“a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Psychological safety needs to be present for organisations to learn from failure. Effective leaders model a growth mindset, promoting psychological safety and appropriate risk taking. When teams trust their leaders they’re more likely to talk openly about failure rather than shift blame or hide errors. But how to build that elusive culture?
Amy Edmondson on Building Psychological Safety
Great leaders share their stories of failure. They don’t hide hide their mistakes or aim to project perfection. They learn and grow from their mistakes. Think Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet, J K Rowling. Learning from failure laid the foundation for their success. So what are successful leaders doing differently?
Leader Success and Failure aren’t Binary
Accurate reflection depends upon the analysis of success and failure. Complex problems are multi factorial. Solutions rely upon external factors as well as skills, knowledge and abilities. We need to begin to examine our successes and failures in tandem.
They Avoid Attribution Error
When leaders examine failure it’s easy to assume in hindsight that errors are obvious. Growth mindset leaders recognise that failures, errors and mistakes are multi layered. For failure to take place there are layers of core values, organisational culture, personalities and assumptions at play.
Sakichi Toyada’s 5 “Whys” are a useful problem solving tool. The 5 Whys provide an effective starting point from which to examine failure. Asking Why? five times helps to place focus on contributing factors rather than seeking a source of blame. It’s a useful baseline to begin exploring causal factors.
Leaders Reframe Loss Aversion
Traditionally we’re taught to avoid failure. Loss hurts, and unless we know better, we’ll do everything we can to avoid it. Changing how we frame failure is key. Relating to errors and mistakes as an opportunity for accelerated learning is pivotal. Leaders who model this growth mindset approach create learning organisations that embrace risk and innovation. Reframing failure and error in this way creates a culture of learning.
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