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Recognizing the value of failure

Sometimes it’s OK if you don’t quite hit the mark

By Brian Kreissl 

A recurring theme over the past few weeks in the forums I follow and the literature I’ve been reading relates to recognizing the value of failure.

Increasingly, experts are saying failure isn’t always a bad thing. It’s what you learn from that failure and how you deal with it afterwards that really matters.

Let’s face it, we’ve all failed at some point in our lives. However, I’m not necessarily talking about spectacular failure — like causing a company to collapse, bringing down a government or serious lapses in judgment resulting in criminal charges and imprisonment.

“Failure” could simply refer to an inability to achieve your own high standards or impossibly tough goals or objectives set by yourself or others. While some people just seem to be “winners” and appear to have everything they touch turn to gold, I’m sure even those people have secret failures or regrets — even if they don’t share them with others.

We all make mistakes, and none of us is perfect. But more importantly, we often learn valuable lessons from our failures and errors in judgment. This has important implications for HR and employers.

Don’t go looking for perfect people

Employers have to stop insisting on trying to hire perfect people. That’s important because I don't care who you are — you’ve made some mistakes in your life and in your career. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

I’m taking a leadership course right now at a local university. One of the readings for the course is an article written by former ING Direct CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann on what he calls “culture-driven leadership.”

Kuhlmann mentions how shaping an organization’s culture depends on having the right people. He then goes on to say he believes in hiring people who have made honest mistakes because they most likely have learned from those mistakes. And failures often drive people to do whatever it takes to become successful.

Another interesting article I read recently suggests it may not always be in an employer's best interests to hire the best candidate. Sometimes hiring a “B” candidate — especially if that person is aware of her shortcomings — can result in a more highly motivated and appreciative employee.

A lot of “A” players didn’t necessarily start out that way. Often they became focused and determined to succeed precisely because they experienced failure earlier in their lives or careers.

Being too risk-averse

Being too afraid of failure can also lead to a culture that’s too conservative and risk-averse. While it’s generally not a good thing to take too much risk, if you’re not willing to take at least some risk you will never be able to innovate or grow.

People and companies have to be able to adapt in the face of stiff competition and constant change. Therefore, organizations are increasingly recognizing the value of calculated risk taking — and even failure at times.

Some organizations even celebrate failure — especially if that failure happened in spite of everyone’s best efforts and people were able to learn from it. I recently read a blog post from a senior executive that was refreshing in its candour about previous mistakes his company had made and how it’s actually all right if you fail. To me, we need more of that kind of honesty in companies.

It’s also important to realize from a performance management perspective that if someone is overly concerned about making mistakes they’re going to be constantly looking over their shoulder. It is times like that when you will actually make a mistake.

HR professionals therefore need to help create cultures that reward a healthy amount of risk taking. It’s also important to have performance management and total rewards programs in place that don’t punish people for each and every little failure or setback.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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