Whose Fault is Failure?
I recently had a former student contact me about his frustration with his cooks. He feels like nothing but a babysitter. I wish I could say his is an isolated case, but it most certainly is not. I’ve not only heard this from dozens of managers, but I’ve also felt it myself at various points in my career. My former student went on to wish for a time when he could just pick his own staff, because then there would be no problems. Ah, if only it worked that way! This conversation led me to pause and reflect on what it means to build a team and deal with failure.
When I was in culinary school, and later in my MBA program, I learned a very specific set of technical skills related to cooking and running a business. These are the transactional activities of management (i.e. scheduling, inventory management, etc.). However, I was never introduced to the softer, more ambiguous transformational skills of leadership (i.e. teach, strategize, motivate, discipline). Sometimes these two things overlap. Leaders certainly engage the tasks of management, but managers do not necessarily engage, or even know, when to become leaders. All leaders manage, but only the best managers lead.
Leadership skills do not have neatly defined S.O.P.s (standard operating procedures). There is no easy way to engage conflict, or take strategic risks. The only thing that is certain in leadership is that there is a very large margin for failure - and that is not fun. It’s much easier to follow a sequential list of tasks than it is to risk the potential for error that leadership requires. Ultimately, the responsibility of failure falls on the leader, and the joy of success lives with those who follow. The best leaders own 100% of their team's failure, and hand over 100% of their team’s successes.
This is the paradox of leadership... without failure you can’t have success. In his book Leadership Without Easy Answers (1998), Ronald Heifetz speaks of the “disorienting dilemmas” of leadership. Leaders make space for their team to investigate new things, learn and grow. All of those activities require a lot of mini failures on the long road to success. If we perceive failure as a negative activity that requires persecution to “fix”, then we’ve lost the golden opportunity that failure holds. If we can use failure as a reflective tool it becomes a teaching implement.
Allowing for this kind of structured failure is a luxury that most managers see as inefficient, or a waste of time/money. The typical response to failure in a manager’s mind is “how much is that going to cost me”, or “why am I paying you if you can’t do it right?” I would argue that both of those statements are not only shortsighted and wrong, but the real source of the problem.
First, if we as leaders take the time to digest failure, discuss it, and teach our way out of it, the longterm return on investment includes variables like: creating a safe space for exploring what went wrong, team building that results from working together to fix the problem, and improved technical skills that come from learning what was done wrong in the first place. These are the intangibles of leadership, and they have a long term monetary value in improved quality of product, and decreased costs of turnover.
To the second point, I would counter any manager who suggested a failure occurred because one of their employees didn’t do “what they were supposed to” with this question: “aren’t you being paid to clearly communicate the job functions, tasks and goals of your employees to your employees; and then monitor those activities for success?” If your staff doesn’t know what you want, or if they don’t know how to do what you want, you’ve failed them because you haven’t given them the tools they need.
If they DO know what and how to do the tasks you’ve requested of them, then it is your responsibility to engage them about why they chose not to do the things you requested of them. It might be there is some reason your way doesn’t work. In that case, you create an environment in which employees feel they can share critical insights with you without fear of repercussions.
If that’s not the case, and they are willingly disobeying you, as a leader you need to have the strength to engage the conflict of the situation and discipline the person. These are the hard conversations of leadership, and without them your staff will hold you hostage because they know you won’t do anything about it.
Failure is not an event, it’s a process. Part of that process includes the heartbreaking aspects of poor results, but those can be the seeds for learning and discovery that come through confronting the activities of recovery and overcoming.