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EMBRACING FAILURE – How to reframe failure and develop a growth mindset

Written by Annette Cairns on .
Embracing Failure

Resolutions – rules to live by, or a route to failure?

An interesting trend seems to be emerging when it comes to January resolutions – and it’s got me curious to explore more about our human need to create rules for ourselves, and the juxtaposition of being afraid to fail!

According to Forbes, the number of people who are committed to making resolutions has increased from 19% of Brits in 2023, to 30% in 2024. Historically, adhering to rules and social norms meant that people stayed safe and accepted in the community, so it has become a natural part of human behaviour to seek out rules. Following guidelines is a natural and instinctive part of the way our brains work, and particularly when in a complex environment, we search for consistency in the ways we are expected to behave.

However, the opposing factor at play, is our innate fear of failure. Why therefore, do we often set resolutions in January, with high (or unrealistic) expectations when we are also so afraid to fail?

‍Understanding the fear of failure

The fear of failure is a very common human emotion – it’s the fear of not meeting expectations, making mistakes (big or small) or being judged by others. This fear can block growth personally and, in the workplace, sometimes leading to missed opportunities and stagnant career progression. 

One of the main reasons people fear failure is the pressure to ‘be successful’. A constant expectation to achieve perfection and flawless results can come from external factors, but more often individuals are afraid of falling short or not meeting the high standards they set for themselves. Past ‘failures’ (and I use this term with caution), or negative experiences can contribute to on ongoing fear of failure, as people worry about repeating the same mistakes or facing similar consequences. 

The impact in the workplace

When individuals are afraid of failing, they are less likely to take risks or step out of their comfort zones, and we often see that it hampers innovation and creativity, as employees stick to what they know and are hesitant to try new approaches. It also stifles collaboration and teamwork, as people may be reluctant to share ideas, speak up and contribute to group projects for fear of being judged or criticised. The bigger impact from this ‘shutting down’ from individuals, means that they may become stressed, anxious, and demotivated. This negativity can spread throughout the team, affecting morale and productivity, blocking effective communication and resulting in a pretty toxic work environment with a downward spiral.

At a personal level, day to day this can be really uncomfortable, but it is also likely to hinder personal development and career progression, as employees tend to avoid challenging opportunities or promotions for fear of not meeting expectations.

All this from setting unrealistic expectations about the biscuit tin?!

Well, here’s the sort-of science bit. As humans, one of our core functions is to protect ourselves, and so when fear kicks in we can often freeze and do nothing.

When we set rules linked to unrealistic goals for ourselves, however small, we can set ourselves up to fail and we maintain an ongoing cycle of failure, fear, freeze. That ‘no biscuits in January’ rule? Failed. The rules were broken, and the intention is frozen and given up on.

So how can we lose the weight, progress more at work, transition to the new role, or even finish the DIY project if we don’t set ourselves rules to live by?

Reframing ‘failure’, introducing learning and a growth mindset

One of the things that I value most about my character is that I’m curious. I love to learn. I love to read and listen and be open to new ways of thinking and doing. And that learning is a key part of having a growth mindset.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

Carol Dweck

How people approach challenges and failure, and their attitude to learning from mistakes can shift towards a growth mindset, meaning they can start to adapt and evolve personally and in the workplace. In simple terms, starting to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn, is a way of reframing and changing behaviours towards longer term growth, both personally and professionally.

What can this look like in the workplace?

There are three high level principles that I see as central to enabling growth mindsets in the workplace. 

  1. Encourage risk-taking and experimentation

Breaking the cycle of rulemaking, and the inherent fear of failure, employees need to feel empowered to take risks and experiment with new ideas. This can be achieved by creating a safe and supportive environment where mistakes are seen as valuable learning experiences. Encourage employees to step out of their comfort zones, try new approaches, be creative and think outside the box. Celebrate both success and failure, highlighting the lessons learned from each experience.

  1. Embrace failure as a learning opportunity

Instead of viewing failure as a negative outcome, reframe it as a stepping stone towards success. Encourage employees to reflect on their failures, analyse what went wrong, and identify areas for improvement. Doing this within a structured framework, with supportive leadership can give confidence as individuals and teams learn this skill. 

The outcomes include growing resilience, adaptability, and critical thinking skills. This mindset shift will help employees to build confidence and become more willing to take calculated risks at work.

  1. Build a culture that supports and embraces continuous learning

This one does need an investment in resources – which can often look like training programmes, workshops, mentoring, and access to materials that develop technical and personal skills.  But most importantly it also needs an embedded culture of support and empowered leadership, which role models ongoing learning, self-awareness and self-reflection, and has values and behaviours that align with this approach.

A leaders role in supporting growth mindsets

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Jack Welch

A deeper look at some of those fundamental leadership skills and behaviours that allow a growth mindset culture to flourish within their teams:

  1. Foster psychological safety

Psychological safety is the feeling that individuals can take risks and be vulnerable without fear of negative consequences. Leaders need to create a psychologically safe environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up, sharing their ideas, and taking calculated risks. This can be achieved by actively listening to employees, valuing, and thanking them for their contributions, and refraining from harsh criticism or judgement. 

  1. Provide constructive feedback

Constructive feedback is essential in helping employees learn from their failures and improve their performance. Leaders should use a framework for feedback, and there are a number of models that leaders can work with, finding one that is comfortable and natural to them. Using a methodical approach ensure that feedback is specific and has an outcome or action attached, for easy progression. By being present, and offering ongoing guidance and support, leaders can help employees to develop their own skills needed to succeed.

  1. Celebrate the good and learn from the bad

Leaders should be able to celebrate both success and failure in the workplace. When employees experience failures, leaders should acknowledge their efforts and encourage them to reflect on the lessons learned. By reframing failures as valuable learning experiences, leaders can help employees overcome their fear of failure and foster a culture of growth and innovation. In a team environment, being open with all individuals can mend a cycle of negativity and encourage more open collaboration, bonding, creativity and boost morale.

Remember, failure is not the end, unless you allow yourself to freeze from the fear.  Rather, it’s the beginning of a new opportunity. So, by all means set those ‘goals’ but instead of resolutions and rules, start to embrace learning - learn what skills you need, habits you need to create (or break) and work on long term behaviour change that brings you results.

Need some direction? Let’s chat about how I can help.

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