Back to posts

Failing the right way.

We’ve all experienced failure in some way. What differentiates us is how we react to any perceived failure, and how we move forwards. Whether it’s not being offered the job, messing up that presentation, failing a driving test, or not hitting a personal best time in a marathon, these knockbacks can have a long-lasting impact and put some people off trying again.

A range of emotions can rear their head when faced with failure – embarrassment, anxiety, anger, sadness, shame… It can feel very raw in the moment, and uncomfortable feelings can linger. How do we tap into that feeling and draw out the motivation to put it behind us and learn from it, but to not let it define us?

As work and our jobs change, we may be asked to do unfamiliar tasks or operate differently. Failure’s an inevitable feature of the workplace, so how do we take positives from it and free ourselves of those negative feelings?

Getting over the fear

I spoke to Marliese Perks, Legal Counsel in the Outsourcing, Technology & IP legal team in our Edinburgh office. Marliese has been with us for 18 months, joining from a background in corporate private practice. Marliese and her team have adopted something called a Failure Camp, and I wanted to understand what it entails, and how it could help us to change our perspective of failure for the better.

As a team we’ve been focussing on the positive power of failure: sharing what each of us learned from experiences of failures and what we, as a collective team, can learn from our colleagues’ experiences.

Marliese explains the idea came onto their radar ‘As a result of a relationship we’ve been nurturing with Cat Moon, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in the US, in order to see failure as an inevitable and potentially positive aspect of working life rather than something to be afraid of. As a team we’ve been focussing on the positive power of failure: sharing what each of us learned from experience of failures and what we, as a collective team, can learn from our colleagues’ experiences.

‘There are various benefits to encouraging an environment where failures can be shared. It’s key to proactive risk management and it encourages a learning environment where it’s accepted that our progress won’t always go in a straight line. It’s rich with learning as we can learn from our collective failures, rather than focussing only on individuals. That also lends itself well to encouraging innovation – by removing barriers or fear around prototyping new ideas and new solutions to problems. Often however, due to the fear of failure, we hold back from putting potential solutions forward until we perceive them to be perfect in our eyes, which hampers our progress. Above all, sharing failures is hugely beneficial from a mental wellbeing perspective, to have an environment where those failures can be aired without fear of comeback.

‘We’ve held three sessions so far, which has involved breaking down some of the typical barriers to sharing failure. Lawyers are often perfectionists by nature and for some there’s a worry that sharing mistakes will damage our sense of self. It can be a bit of an adjustment to be vulnerable with colleagues, but the real tangible benefits of sharing experiences encourages the team to become more comfortable with it.’

Tone from the top

Marliese explained that one thing key to an environment where failure can be shared safely and productively, is the support of leaders. After all, everyone has had their own experiences of failures; everyone makes mistakes.

‘We’ve been lucky to have a good tone from the top in terms of seniors in our team role modelling the concept by sharing their mistakes first and helping to break that veil of perfection. By continuing the conversation after the initial Failure Camp, it’s helped our team to continue to build a trusting culture, to respect and value our collective opinions, and to bond.

‘Whether we’re discussing career failures, failure to project your personal brand, or other topics, the whole premise is the difference between intelligent failure versus incompetent failure. It’s not about us dropping our standards, it’s about encouraging us to push our boundaries, to feel confident to share an idea even if it doesn’t go anywhere and to embrace failure so that we’re not hindered by it.

‘Reckless mistakes or repeated errors are, of course, something that need to be managed in a different way. But intelligent failures are rich learning opportunities for all of us to understand and iterate until we achieve the desired result.’

With Alison Rose’s appointment as CEO came a new emphasis on being a learning organisation. Part of this is us learning from each other, by us sharing our experiences so we can all establish tools and techniques that work best. In one session Marliese quoted from Angela Duckworth’s book Grit that some people have twenty years’ experience, whilst others have one year’s experience twenty times in a row; we all have something to offer and to learn from one another to add to that experience.

‘Given the value of learning, it’s important that we build a workplace where we feel free to share those learnings and failures with our colleagues. It’s really a catalyst, not a means to an end. The key is having a psychologically safe environment and having open and regular dialogue. Failure Camp has been a great way for us to provide that forum for discussion and built trust.”

Embracing the change

Following the initial Failure Camp, Marliese explained that the team are trialling ‘flash failure camps’ which are shorter catch ups every few weeks to keep a regular discourse and openness in her team around failure. And where does Marliese see this going in the future?

‘Failure Camps have given me a licence to be more creative, to come up with solutions that customers and stakeholders have had, and not be worried about it. Some will work, some won’t. We need to celebrate this and not be afraid’.

‘We’ve had a couple of other business areas contacting us as they’re keen to run similar sessions with their teams, so we’re helping them set themselves up to run these sessions and build that trust in their teams; to create a better risk culture, encourage creativity, and to improve wellbeing. Ideally, it would be great to see lots of teams across the bank trial using this method.

‘Failure Camps have given me a licence to be more creative, to come up with solutions that customers and stakeholders have had, and not to be worried about it whether all of them will land perfectly. Some will work, some won’t. We need to celebrate this and not be afraid.’

The power of vulnerability is that it can bring people together, to harvest a shift in mindset and allow authenticity and learnings to work together to great effect. Knowing that we have the support of our colleagues when things don’t go to plan and being able to talk about it – if developed in the right way – can bring teams closer and help to increase productivity.

Check out opportunities to work somewhere you can expect a culture of psychological safety

Register your interest