Why is building a culture of failure a good thing?

Three traits to look for when building a team that succeeds through failure.

March 12, 2019

Success is fun. Success is what we celebrate from the classroom to the athletic fields, and during concerts and performances. But if we cultivate success, then how do we as a culture treat failure?

In my professional life, and I suspect in most professional careers, not everything always goes as planned. If you are like me, you have an entire set of skills from these experiences that have helped to shape your ethos at work. While some may perceive these as negative, I prefer to think that they have driven me to improve and learn from them in the future.

One of my jobs as the leader of University Communications at St. Lawrence University is to build a culture where my team has the space to try new ideas and test different concepts. The capacity for us to learn how to fail, build resilience, and eventually produce a better result is critical. Knowledge is compounding interest and when we as a team learn from things that have not worked, it propels a set of new ideas that may indeed work in the future. We work in an industry that is not static and is continually changing. We compete in a complex and noisy marketplace and need to create the opportunity to put bold ideas to the test. It is crucial to building teams that have the tools and skills that enable us to persevere when things get tough or don’t work out.

There are three core traits to look for when hiring individuals and building teams around this concept. I have found that these traits help your team to be ready to embrace a culture that celebrates failure.

1) Self-awareness or emotional intelligence

One of the top things that I look for when I hire any individual is their ability to understand and manage emotions, which significantly increases their chances of success. That ability also leads to a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. That understanding is at the core of how an individual builds resilience. Building a team that is aware of themselves and their environments will increase their likelihood of learning from mistakes and failure and eventually being able to harness those lessons into success.

2) Confidence

To succeed in a culture that encourages taking risks your teammates need to have an underlying sense of confidence. They don’t need to be overconfident, but they need to know that they are good at their job, their ideas are valued, and there is no penalty for trying a new approach that might not work. What makes a difference is having the trust to fail and the understanding that within failure are lessons that help you succeed. Teammates who exhibit that type of confidence are the ones that you want when a project takes a wrong turn.

3) Curiosity

Asking better questions almost always yields better results, and I like to look for teammates who have a willingness to learn and ask questions. Natural curiosity is an excellent complement to a team that is testing a new digital design or a fresh approach to talking about an academic program. That inquisitive nature will help your group find ideas that work as often as you find ideas that don’t.

Concluding Thoughts

Self-awareness, confidence, and curiosity are three traits that are important when you build a team that makes room for failure. Looking for these traits in the people that you hire and work with will increase your chances of building a team that will be resilient and ready to tackle any number of challenges that they will face together.

Paul Redfern is vice president for communications at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. He is a frequent presenter on marketing and brand topics at national conferences and serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the College and University Public Relations and Associated Professionals (CUPRAP).


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