Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures. Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame. That is why so few organizations have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized.
Executives I've interviewed in organizations as different as hospitals and investment banks admit to being torn: How can they respond constructively to failures without giving rise to an anything-goes attitude? If people aren't blamed for failures, what will ensure that they try as hard as possible to do their best work?
This concern is based on a false dichotomy. In actuality, a culture that makes it safe to admit and report a failure can--and in some organizational contexts must--coexist with high standards for performance. To understand why, look at the exhibit "A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure" [I reproduce it below], which lists cause ranging from deliberate deviation to thoughtful experimentation.
Which of these causes involve blameworthy actions? Deliberate deviance, first on the list, obviously warrants blame. But inattention might not. If it results from a lack of effort, perhaps it's blameworthy. But if it results from fatigue near the end of an overly long shift, the manager who assigned the shift is more at fault than the employee. As we go down the list, it gets more and more difficult to find blameworthy acts. In fact, a failure resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generates valuable information may actually be praiseworthy.
When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and them to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits--perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or laugh) 70% to 90%. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.
The Spectrum of Reasons for Failure
Top--Most Blameworthy, moving towards more Praiseworthy.
Deviance: An individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.
Inattention: An individual inadvertently deviates from specifications
Lack of Ability: An individual doesn't have the skills, conditions, or training to execute a job.
Process Inadequacy: A competent individual adheres to prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.
Task Challenge: An individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.
Process Complexity: A process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.
Uncertainty: A lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesirable results.
Hypothesis Testing: An experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed fails.
Exploratory Testing: An experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired result.
Observer commentary: This has a lot of applications in a lot of settings: workplace, government, personal life. It is not about creating an environment where excellence is not the goal or routinely expected, or shirking responsibility for one's part when failure occurs. It is about creating a positive and encouraging environment where failure is not covered up, but opened up, and is seen, not as something to punish but something to learn from.
Reference: Amy C. Edmondson "Strategies for Learning From Failure" Harvard Business Review 89:4 April 2011 pp. 48-55.
I like what I wrote when I put this as a note on Facebook:
I think this piece has something to say to those of us who struggle with feelings of failure and being inadequate to cope. Not all failures require blame, and no failure is justification for devaluing a person as a Child of God. This is not about looking for someone to blame--we all know pretty much when our failure is at the top of the list and part of being authentic in Christ is a willingness to admit when we were wrong. It is about making failure less about punishment and being banished and abandoned and more about learning something that we can use as we move along in life.