How We Fail at Failure.

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.”

-Brene Brown

I am what my therapist would call “risk averse.” It’s one of the top priorities in my personal life, becoming inured to my fear of failure. Even small failures (dinner is too salty, I dropped something down the bathroom sink drain, etc.) can throw my entire day into chaos. But the thing is, I’ve been trained to be this way. And I think a lot of us have.

Volumes have been written about the value of failure, but the authors of these pieces never seem to be the type that have to worry about not making rent because they were canned for a failure at work.

In fact, as the personal development and productivity gurus of modern work culture tell us we must fail to learn and grow, American work culture remains intensely punitive toward failure. The end result of this is that development through failure is a privilege reserved for those who are financially comfortable enough to afford it.

I cannot count the number of jobs I’ve held where I’ve lived in terror that a single mistake would result in my dismissal. Jobs that are highly specialized but low skill are particularly bad about this, because management has limited the amount of training that they need to do to hire a new employee, so workers are all interchangeable and replaceable. Low skill jobs are always in demand, so this results in situations in which management maintains records of work failures for the express purpose of being able to dismiss an employee at will. Even if you’re not subject to this kind of dismissal, it results in a culture of fear and perfectionism.

At the same time, we’re told that employers want creative workers, innovation, and people who think outside the box. The fact is, the way we handle work cultures for most employees (this means not those on Google or Amazon campuses) actively discourages creativity and innovation.

This is often (but not always) a result of firm size; the bigger a firm gets, and the more levels of hierarchy between top management and front line employees, the more layers of people to worry about failure, and the more punitively those people will behave toward those who report to them. Top management has little influence on culture at the bottom of the organizational structure, because there are too many layers of hierarchy between them and the front line employees, and the culture moving down the hierarchy changes; like a game of telephone.

The result is that creativity (and, necessarily, failure) remain a privilege for those who are the least vulnerable. Which seems really backwards to me, because it’s the employees that are the newest to an organization that are most capable of thinking outside the box, because they have the ability to view the structures and processes from the outside, being less entrenched in them. And while, yes, some new employees enter into upper management, most of them take entry-level positions. Positions that are the most vulnerable in the event of failure.

And here’s the thing; as much as our employers would like us to be perfect, failure is inevitable. It’s not if; it’s when. And work culture denies us that humanity.

This was a problem for me at my most recent job. I was working as a temporary mail clerk, and every time I made a mistake I sank into a morass of anxiety, terrified I would lose my job. This reaction was due to the way work cultures at prior jobs had impacted me; job after job in which I knew that a single mistake could easily result in termination. Grace was never a guarantee. As a result, I attempted to hide or outright lie about mistakes I’d made that I couldn’t fix on my own.

Fortunately my direct supervisor at that job wasn’t as interested in the mistake as she was in my fixing it and learning from it, and by the time I left that position she regarded me as one of the most competent to hold it. She offered grace, and the opportunity to learn and grow. And honestly, those mistakes were the things that helped me learn the most about the position, to the point that when I was training my replacement, I knew exactly what mistakes to let my trainee make, and which ones to intervene in, because the mistakes would give me an opportunity to train her further.

Certainly, if someone is not performing acceptably at their job, it’s time for intervention. Sadly, for many of these positions, it is cheaper in terms of resources (time, money, effort, reputation) to simply dismiss an employee and hire another one than to regard an error as a training opportunity.

As much as many companies claim to value their front line employees, they certainly don’t act like they do.

These kinds of dismissals carry even more risk, because a termination on one’s record can reduce the chances of them occupying future positions.

If we really cared about having capable, skilled workers in these positions, we would approach failure with a bit of grace, because failure is not just inevitable; it is how we learn, it is how we grow, and it is how we progress. Not just as people, but as organizations and as societies.

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