Bowling alley birthday parties were all the rage when my sons were little. In the interest of developing self-esteem, bumper pads filled the alleys to ensure the little tykes dropped some pins. By the time my kids were in high school, zero-tolerance rules were ubiquitous and helicopter parenting was a newly coined phrase in the American lexicon. Parents write papers, do research for student projects and are involved in so many facets of their children’s’ lives it can be dizzying. Those bowling bumpers, years later, are still firmly in place.
All of this unconscious hovering sends a tacit, unspoken message that mistakes are unacceptable while perfection is the ultimate parental accomplishment. My own father expects more from my accomplishments than I actually achieve, so in his eyes I always fall short. His need for me to be perfect has caused me to stop sharing my accomplishments with him. Such high expectations backfire.
The thing is, working hard to achieve something new should not be fodder for reprimands or punitive action; it’s the lack of action and maintenance of a poorly functioning status quo that should be looked at with a sideways glance. Perfection, after all, lives on the same continuum as failure. In life, as in work, we learn painfully but fully from our failures — that is when we grow. It’s certainly been true in my life.
In his excellent book, The Art of Possibility, Ben Zander, one-time conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and then-wife, Rosamund Zander, ask why his college-level orchestra students are not achieving breakthrough performances. The Zanders theorized that students were too focused on getting an A, and that effort was interfering with their potential to become great musicians. They came up with something called “Giving the A.”
“Each student in this class will get an A for the course,” Zander writes in the book. “However, there is one requirement that you must fulfill to earn this grade … You must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, ‘Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because …’” In the letter, the students were to tell, in as much detail as possible, the story of the musician they would become by the following May. They needed to write as if they had already accomplished their mastery, placing themselves in their futures and looking back to tell the story of how they became their best selves.
What did Zander find? Amazing breakthrough performances: “The practice of Giving the A allows the teacher to line up with her students in their efforts to produce the outcome, rather than lining up with the standards against these students [grades],” he writes. “In the first instance, the instructor and the student, or the manager and the employee, become a team for accomplishing the extraordinary; in the second, the disparity in power between them can become a distraction and an inhibitor, drawing energy away from productivity and development.”
Let me share a quick example: The HR leader of a potential client’s firm has taken months to review bids from several consultants and to parse those bids. She wants every possible contingent answer and performance guarantee in place before taking her recommendations to upper leadership. After many phone calls and one recent meeting, I spoke to someone on that HR person’s team who was clearly frustrated.
Me: “Tell me, is there a culture of fear in your organization?”
I asked how that was showing up and where was it coming from. Her answer was that it was coming from the CEO, in the form of humiliating reprimands when something didn’t go perfectly. That same CEO believes her organization needs to be more proactive and productive; yet her unconscious actions are killing any hope for change. Instead, her expectation of performance perfection creates a dreaded paralysis of action.
I am also involved with an organization that puts on an annual leadership conference for high school students in our community. After our first conference, we asked the students what else they would like to experience. They said they wanted to know if the leaders had ever failed and, if so, what their struggles had been. We added a segment on failure to the curriculum the following year; four years later, it is one of the most popular sessions at the conference. Students get to ask leaders about their failures and struggles. The students report that this exercise is extremely comforting and inspiring, because it helps them understand that even successful people have many failures. No one likes to feel alone.
And we all know the famed story of Edison and the lightbulb: After 1,000 failures, he finally got it right. When asked how it felt to fail so many times, Edison answered, “The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” How wonderful! His simple reframing of perceived failure was a healthy take on mistakes and ultimate success. Edison gave himself an A. Of course, he worked tirelessly to get there.
So how can you help move your company culture to one of action and accomplishment, while allowing for the process of learning from mistakes?
- Reframe failures and mistakes into teachable moments and applaud people for taking risks to make things better.
- Give people an A, everywhere you go. Help them see a more brilliant future by asking them to start living it now.
- If you find yourself surrounded by people who seem afraid to act, ask yourself what you might be doing to unconsciously induce that behavior. Like the high school students interviewing leaders, allow for conversation about failure; it builds confidence.
- Get out of your comfort zone and try something new. Ralph Heath, a leadership consultant, writes in his book Celebrating Failure: “One of the biggest secrets to success is operating inside your strength zone but outside of your comfort zone … Although you might fail incredibly, you might succeed incredibly — and that’s why incredible risk and courage are requisite.”
Overcoming failure builds resiliency, courage and confidence that one can fix things, even master them. Taking the bumper pads off at work and at home enables people to dig deep and become their best selves.