Today's Challenge: Letting People Fail

Today’s Challenge is a weekly series dedicated to answering questions submitted by readers. Today’s question is one leaders ask throughout their career: How do you know when to let someone fail?
Interestingly, this question is usually framed in the context that failure is a bad thing. The irony is, we learn the most when we fail. Think about the sale you lost. You learned from it – if you were going to stay in sales, you learned from it. Think about the test you failed in college. You either learned you needed to change your study habits or your major; I changed my major. When a child is learning to walk, talk or ride a bike, doing it wrong - failing, is part of the process. Failure is a great path to learning!
So, when we think about keeping someone from failing, we need to acknowledge, in doing so, we may be depriving them of a critical learning experience. To be sure, we need judgment in this arena.
As the leader, often we can see future consequences better than those we lead. This can be a product of our experience, our judgment or even our intuition. However, that doesn’t mean we should ALWAYS prevent people from failing.
The rule of thumb I was taught many years ago by one of my mentors, Sonny Newton, revolved around two significant questions:
1. What is the cost associated with the potential failure?
If you are correct and the course of action the person is about to take will end in failure, what do you think the failure will cost in real dollars? What will it cost in credibility for the person? Would it be a highly visible failure? What are the potential costs to the brand? If you determine the cost to be within reason, you can ask the second question.
2. If the outcome is not favorable, are the consequences reversible?
If you lose a sale, would you lose the client forever? If you go over budget, can you recover in some other category? Does it matter if you are over budget (this is really more related to question #1). Will this person lose their job if they make this mistake? These are the type questions you can ask to determine if you should allow a person to proceed with an ill-fated strategy or plan.
A final thought… when people do fail, and they will, be sure they learn from the experience. My goal is to avoid the same mistake twice and help others do the same.[GLS_Shield]


Leave a comment

3 × 3 =

Ruben Avalos Jr

9 years ago

Great post Mark! I have coached many football teams and we have learned our best lessons for life throught loses after a game. One thing I always told my team after a lose is "Do you know what not to do now?" I truly believe this is how we fail forward, by knowing what not to do! Champions fail First!!

Ricky Escobar

9 years ago

This post reminds me of "comfort zones" for individuals. Imagine a bulls-eye with a person's comfort in the middle, followed by a ring for their stretch zone, and finally a ring for their danger zone. Any given task falls into one of those categories for individuals. A person is not challenged and will not learn if they are in their comfort zone. The counterpoint however is if a person is in their danger zone they will not feel safe enough to succeed or learn and thus will shut down resulting in automatic failure. The key is challenging someone in their stretch zone, where opportunity for success and failure are both possible but stretching for them and where the person feels safe to learn from both outcomes, learning what made something successful and learning what made something not successful, what I call "failing forward". Discernment is needed from the leader in assigning tasks to individuals as their comfort zones are also unique. This is where trust between the leader and follower come into play as well. Trust that the follower will step up to be stretched and trust that the leader will not impose the follower to danger. What do you think Mark?


9 years ago

Thanks, Ricky. I think you're correct! Trust is key. I'll be writing more about that in the days to come. Thanks for joining the conversation! Mark

Jon Stallings

9 years ago

Thanks for sharing this one Mark. Several weeks ago I was thinking that that at times it may be appropriate to let someone else fail even when I could step in and prevent it. Failure is a great teacher.


Copyright © 2022 INTEGREAT Leadership
All rights reserved.