Let’s Hear It for Failure!

There’s a story from the early days of IBM and its legendary CEO and founder, Tom Watson, which offers an instructive lesson about failure.  According to company accounts, one of the senior vice-presidents made a mistake in his department that cost the company a huge amount of money.  When the summons came for a meeting in Watson’s office, the VP was so sure of the outcome that he wrote his letter of resignation before going to the meeting.  Imagine his surprise when Watson did not chew him out, but instead simply asked him for his version of what had happened.

Greatly relieved, the man confessed that he had expected to be fired because his mistake had cost the company 10 million dollars. Watson’s response was a laugh and the quip, “Are you serious?  The last thing I’d do is fire you for an honest mistake, and besides, I just invested 10 million dollars in your education!”

Unfortunately, most bosses today would find it very difficult to forgive such a mistake.  We live in an era that demands perfection from business leaders and employees, politicians, celebrities, sports stars, family members, friends and neighbors, etc.  No one wants to acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes – often lots of them – and that there’s real value in those failures if we learn from them.  The general rule seems to be that, especially in business, we get paid to succeed not fail.

But think about it.  What if we lived and worked in an environment where we could actually step back and take a thorough look at our failures – and ask ourselves “How could I have done this better?”  Look it up, most research on the subject of failure actually shows that it can be a key factor in personal growth.  When we stop and take a look at an experience, it often leads to a change in the way we view the world, and most often that change is positive.

Business research also finds that when companies put too much emphasis on goals, it can actually entice employees to cut corners and reduce the quality of products and services in order to look good in the eyes of their superiors.  Unfortunately, those same decisions tend to have exactly the opposite effect in the eyes of the business’s customers, since they are the ones who get the final results of those decisions.  And the resulting problems are harder to correct too because any meaningful discussion about the situation will now take place in hidden corners and behind closed doors.

It often takes heroic effort to get our mistakes and failures out in the open where everyone can work together to fully examine them and extract the nuggets of learning they can offer.  Sure, it seems that people are really hard on each other these days and quite often looking for somewhere else to place the blame when they are stinging from a failure.  But social media and reviews are showing us each day that we are also pretty quick to forgive each other when someone owns up to his failures and makes an honest attempt to correct the misstep.

If others are willing to forgive, shouldn’t we then be quicker to forgive ourselves and move on?  If we don’t, we most certainly risk falling into a consistent pattern where we become unwilling to take chances and grow.

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