Opening up about failure at work


Source: © Emma Pewsey

Naturally I’m sharing one of my better sketching efforts – I’m not quite ready to publish a complete disaster

I joined a sketching group a few months ago. At the end of each session, the organiser takes a picture of everyone’s drawings to share on Instagram. At first I was almost embarrassed to share my sketches – many people in the group are incredible artists, whereas my efforts are distinctly amateur.

Embracing the discomfort that comes with sharing my wonky drawings is one way I’m trying to build my wider resilience. As Fawzi Abou-Chahine discusses elswhere in Chemistry World, resilience is an important career skill to develop. No matter how brilliant you are, there will be times when you make a mistake, or where you encounter something you don’t know how to do (and worse, have to admit that you don’t know). To some extent we should embrace those situations, as they are likely to be times when we can learn the most.

But workplaces shouldn’t automatically rely on employees having the resilience to power through challenging situations without support. For one thing, failure hits harder when there’s more at stake. It’s easier to cope with a funding application being rejected when you have other sources of financial support available. Having to constantly call on your resilience reserves can also be draining. If you’re already battling discrimination due to your skin colour, sexuality or disability, you might hesitate to ask a question that exposes your lack of knowledge.

When mistakes do happen in the workplace, the first step is to make sure they weren’t preventable. Someone should not be blamed for doing something poorly or incorrectly when trying something for the first time – but it’s also important to look at whether they were given sufficient training and support to succeed. The support on offer should also be reviewed regularly to make sure it’s still adequate as situations change.

But it’s also crucial for employers to normalise failure. That might sound like a recipe for lower quality output. But if employees feel comfortable admitting their mistakes, those mistakes can be identified and fixed quickly and easily, increasing productivity and overall work quality. Plus, it decreases the resilience burden on employees – it’s much harder to open up about a mistake that’s spiralled into a major incident than to address it when the impacts are still small.

This is where leadership is crucial. Without people in positions of power being open about what they’ve found challenging, other members of an organisation are unlikely to open up either. Promising not to blame people for their mistakes is not enough – employees in more precarious positions need examples to draw on.