Three Ways to Make it Safe for Others to Fail

When was the last time you or your people took a chance on being innovative, and it didn’t work out?

That happened to me in March 2020. I created a program called “The Remote Leadership Series.” It featured virtual programs for building rapport, holding effective meetings and managing people who worked offsite. Of course it contained lots of practical tips, fun activities and neuroscience.

Then I excitedly announced the series, talking it up in person and on social media. The response was mostly crickets. Soon afterward, to my chagrin, lots of large consulting organizations introduced similar programs that capitalized on this need.

I had failed.

Failure in the Brain and Body

When we take a risk that doesn’t work out, this triggers the amygdala in our limbic system (or emotional brain). The amygdala’s job is to keep us safe. When it senses that we’re not, it tries to protect us by causing these physical and mental changes:

  1. We feel like protesting (fighting or blaming others) or defending ourselves (fleeing or freezing)
  2. Our muscles tighten
  3. Our heart rate increases
  4. Energy is sent to our limbs
  5. Our sensitivity to pain increases
  6. Our focus either narrows (to concentrate on threats) or is lost
  7. Our initiative and ability to take risks decreases
  8. Our ability to learn and to recall information is dulled
  9. We have trouble naming our feelings
  10. We can’t make decisions or plans

Yes: we experience the suck of being stuck.

Making It Safe for Others to Fail

Nearly every organization says its culture encourages people to take risks. You and I know that sometimes this is more lip service than reality. But when your people fail, you can do three things to help them.

Manage Yourself First – Watch for your knee-jerk reactions. Do you rush to fix things? Or analyze different options they could have chosen? Or give advice? Or speak off the cuff and then regret something that sounded harsh or condescending?

If you’re having thoughts or feelings about something that went off the rails, process these first so you can be there and be calm. (Otherwise your reactions will create additional issues you’ll have to work through.) Be wise enough to see any gaps you have here and ask for help.

Express Your Care – This starts with saying your version of “I care about you even when things don’t feel so great.” Listen for understanding and empathy (here’s a checklist with my top 10 ideas for active listening).

Studies reveal our bodies feel pain more acutely when we experience it on our own. Just being there and holding someone’s hand—literally or figuratively, and without speaking—literally reduces the activity in the pain centers in their brains.

Put Them in Charge of Next Steps – There will be a time to sort through what happened, the lessons learned and what to do now. Let them know you trust their judgment on when and how this should happen, and they have what it takes to lead that process.

Because they’re feeling particularly vulnerable, look for opportunities to point out their strengths in the moment. Research shows that the ratio of positive to negative comments in high-performing teams is 5.6 to 1. (In average-performing teams, the ratio is 1.9 positive to 1 negative. Low-performance teams experience .36 to 1.)

Safety Is a Leader’s Job

How your people feel shapes the narrative they tell themselves about your organization, which shapes the way they act. People notice when you stand with them during the tough as well as the good times. This gives you credibility, which increases their loyalty—and the chances the future risks will turn out better.

And when it’s you who fails? Be as kind to yourself as you would to your people. For me, that meant talking it through with my coach and others with valuable insights. They held my hand and spoke over the negative voices in my head, so I can keep taking risks with new ideas.