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Creating A Safe Environment For Failure


by Art Barter, CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute (SLI), and author of “The Art of Servant Leadership II: How You Get Results Is More Important Than the Results Themselves

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be. – John Wooden

No one likes to use the word failure. People may say, “We didn’t get the results we were looking for,” or “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.” But fear of failure creates a culture of indecision, inaction, and a deferment to the leader to make all the decisions. So our job as servant leaders is to create an environment where it’s okay to shoot for something that’s a stretch (“audacious goals,” as we call them), knowing that if you meet them, it will be great and we will celebrate. If you don’t, though, it’s not the end of the world.

Servant leaders realize nobody’s perfect and we all experience failure. It’s a fundamental part of being a servant leader. Servant leadership is a set of behaviors and practices that turn the traditional “power leadership” model upside down; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader actually exists to serve the people. What’s important is when we do experience failure, we learn from it and make necessary changes. In a servant-led organization, people are not judged for failing; on the contrary, they are encouraged to face those failures and use them as a learning tool. We need to remember that failure is an event and not a person.

Here are three ways servant leaders create a safe environment for failure.

1. Servant leaders build relationships with their people.

Businesses go through many different cycles. It’s pretty easy to create an environment that’s safe for failure when things are going well. That doesn’t take a lot of creativity, because everyone is on the upswing, feeling good about where your organization is and where you’re headed. But when times get tough, keeping that safe environment is difficult. Why? Because as leaders, our first reaction is to go back to our old ways—jumping in and controlling everything. And that’s when that safe environment goes away.

Making the effort to build relationships and openly disclose even your organization’s leaders’ failures provides transparency and a safe environment to fail in both good times and low times. To build authentic, trusting, and failsafe relationships, establish small peer groups with your team to meet regularly to discuss current challenges and celebrations.

2. Servant leaders know when to step aside.

Because fear of failure is often magnified in front of authority, some people have such a fear of the CEO that it limits their ability to participate in problem-solving. Part of the difference between leaders and managers is that managers fear not being perfect in front of people; leaders know that failure is part of their transformation and learning process. If you detect your team may comprise a solution that benefits your organization due to fear of a leader, it’s a great practice to physically remove yourself from the setting. For example, I sometimes step out of a meeting or away from a group so they can feel safe to talk about what needs to be talked about without this fear.

3. Different people will react differently to hard things.

Part of our transparency as senior leaders is to be able to stand up and say, “I made a mistake. This one’s on me.” Outside of the senior staff, I’ve found that I have to be sensitive to individuals. Different people will react differently to the ownership you give them, and it’s up to the leader to figure out what will work for each individual. Some people may prefer to have private discussions with their leader, because the public arena is uncomfortable for them. To others, a safe environment means just sending them off with what they need to do, along with the guidelines they need to operate within. They know they can come back and ask, “Is it okay to go outside of those guidelines?”

Sometimes the most effective way to impact individuals is through other people, not directly. Other people will react to encouragement more than they will to constructive criticism, and they prefer a pat on the back or a hand-written note of encouragement. And the best thing you can do for some people is to just stay away from them, give them time and space, and not try and push them through the process.

It all depends on the individuals and where they are in their transformation. The point is, leaders can’t expect people to come up to their level. Servant leaders need to meet people where they are. When you listen to understand — not to change the way others take ownership — you allow people to experience failure without trying to fix it.

At times, servant leaders are best when they are out of the way to allow their team to fail safely and comfortably without fearing authority. When you build strong relationships with your team and the organization’s leaders, and understand different people react to failure differently, you are building a culture where failure can be accepted, respected, and able to revise paths to succeed. Failure is a tough word to say and process to swallow, but it does not have to be fatal.

Success is never final; failure is never fatal. John Wooden


Art Barter is CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute (SLI), an organization that helps people and organizations put servant leadership into practice, through hands-on training, coaching, events, publications and other programs. He is also CEO and cultural architect of Datron World Communications Inc., an organization he transformed from a $10 million company to a $200 million company in just six years by putting into practice the behaviors of servant leadership. His latest book is “The Art of Servant Leadership II“.

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