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Why Talking About Failure is Good for your Company’s Culture

When was the last time you screwed up?

Everyone does it. But, as you probably know, no one likes to share their biggest mistakes.

In high growth, fast paced startups, it’s easy to see why people hide their failures. Whether they’re suffering from Impostor Syndrome or simply afraid to admit that they’re wrong, team members can go to great lengths to bury their failures and move onto their next project without looking back.

However, sharing your failures can actually have a profoundly positive impact on your team’s culture and success. Being open and transparent about mistakes can boost trust, encourage collaboration and help employees across your organization share knowledge that will put them in a better position to succeed.

Why Do We Hide Our Failures?

Before we get into how sharing failures can help, let’s take a look at why we hide them in the first place.

Workplaces can be competitive with employees constantly trying to one-up each other. Environments that encourage this sort of behaviour (consciously or not) run the risk of creating a misalignment between what matters to their employees and what’s important for their overall success.

When employees focus on impressing internal stakeholders instead of the quality of their own work, it can make people feel uncomfortable owning up to their mistakes. After all, in this type of work environment, any misstep is a sign of weakness or incompetence and too many of those errors could cost an employee their hard-fought position.

Even without a competitive environment, toxic attitudes towards failure can still show up. Impostor Syndrome, a feeling people experience when they believe that they aren’t qualified for their jobs, is a common phenomenon in the tech industry.

With new grads chasing startup jobs and tons of ladder-climbing opportunities for junior employees, it’s easy for tech workers to end up in roles where they don’t feel comfortable. Discomfort leads to not asking for help and not asking for help leads to making mistakes.

Once these failures happen, employees suffering from Impostor Syndrome can feel cornered and even less likely to open up about their mistakes. In these situations, they already feel lost and believe that talking about it will only make things worse.

Your team needs a support network to constantly remind them that it’s okay to fail. It’s rare to get things right the first time; your team needs to be able to explore what doesn’t work, so that they can eventually understand what does.

The Benefits of Sharing Mistakes

Admitting our mistakes is tough. It puts us in a vulnerable position and exposes our shortcomings to the world. So, why bother doing it?

Sharing failures is crucial to securing a successful future for your company. It helps build a foundation of trust and empathy while giving employees the opportunity to take chances and make more informed decisions.

Building Trust

Since we all make mistakes, admitting to them shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s universally relatable and it creates an atmosphere of transparency, integrity and trust. When we share our failures, we expose a vulnerable piece of ourselves to the larger group and signal that we’re comfortable with them knowing something hidden about ourselves.

Trust is essential to any organization and it should start from the top. More junior employees might feel too intimidated to be the first to share failures, so leadership and culture teams need to lead by example and let people across the organization know that it’s okay. Whether that means holding monthly town halls where teams take turns sharing their biggest challenges, or encouraging sharing on Slack by just being the first to start doing it.

You need to support your workforce by providing them with the tools they need to do their best work. When it comes to failure, those tools can be as straightforward as a platform and a voice.

Supporting Collaboration

Openly sharing failures is humanizing, it helps foster empathy and a sense of community. It helps you understand why other teams do things the way they do and how they’re working to achieve the same goals.

Success is an end result, but failure helps you understand how you got there. When you only focus on successes, you risk creating silos in your organization. Understanding the why behind failure helps people accept and even embrace processes that they may have otherwise disagreed with or questioned. It also helps teams understand how their own work can fit in with the work of others and create a stronger path to success for everyone.

Sharing Knowledge

Success is a constant iteration on failure. If your organization treats failure as something to be ashamed of, you’re actually discouraging success in a lot of ways. You’re discouraging success through experimentation, a route that often yields some of the best results.

Employees can’t be expected to have the confidence to branch out from their day-to-day and try something new if they have the fear of failure looming over their heads. You shouldn’t let the fear of failure squash creativity. You want people to be able to take calculated risks and if the results don’t line up with their expectations, then you’ve created an opportunity to learn from those mistakes instead.

Once you analyze what went wrong and better understand the circumstances that produced a failure, you can move forward with additional, richer information to help your team achieve its goals. Sharing those results with your entire team is a great way to spread that information around and help everyone make more informed decisions down the road.

Talking about failure creates a collective pool of knowledge about what methods haven’t produced the correct results, why they haven’t and how they can be refined in the future.

Start Talking About It

If you’re serious about creating a strong company culture, you need to consider the way that your organization thinks about failure. Make the last time you screwed up, the last time you screwed up and kept it a secret.

Melissa Ramos is the co-founder of Work Well , an HR and culture publication.