Editorial: Time for HR to Celebrate Failure

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Andrii Zastrozhnov

Talkback radio rarely offers much in the way of enlightenment, but I have to say a recent discussion last week between job seekers and a number of recruitment consultants fascinated me. 

It was one of those moments when I kept the radio on and stayed in the car, listening well after I arrived at my destination. 

The theme was “failure”, and how it could be a positive for your career. It was an idea I hadn’t often considered — despite my litany of failures — but on reflection it made complete sense.

Hiring on failures

Job interviews are so often seen as an opportunity to list successes, the more the better. 

Presumably these will impress the potential employer, who will be awed by the number of accomplishments and respond.

But there is something simplistic, formulaic and even perhaps off-putting in talking about success.  It is expected and predictable and may not be insightful.

Talking about failure, it seems, can be much more enlightening, and instead of identifying candidate weaknesses it can point to their strengths and resilience.

Understanding failure shows that a candidate realizes where mistakes have been made, and what went wrong. It suggests a willingness to learn and improve.

People who acknowledge their failures often have more personal insight than those who crow about their success. 

From this comes a sense of humility which can make people more empathetic and even better team players.

Then there is the idea of “owning” your mistakes. People who don’t own up to failure might be the type to blame colleagues or other factors for times when things didn’t quite go to plan.

An honest discussion with someone who understands why a project failed, and who takes responsibility for at least part of it, can be much more impressive than hearing a candidate go on at length about how brilliant they are.

In the radio discussion, recruiters talked about conversations with candidates and agreed that a mature and honest approach to failure was a competitive advantage compared to some candidates, who refused to acknowledge that it could ever be a part of their world.

Failure is not a dirty HR word

Entrepreneurs are told not to fear failure. Any tale of a successful business start up is often littered with examples on how the entrepreneur failed multiple times before hitting on the idea which delivered final success.

The business world has learned to applaud these failures as rehearsals. There is an acknowledgement that entrepreneurs learned vital lessons from failure which they could use to drive their success.

It seems we must do more of that in the world of HR and recruitment as well and stop treating failure as dirty work associated with defeat and weakness.

Acknowledging failure, in fact, can be a foundation for positive accountability and trust if the right approach is taken.

Not only will it mean more honest job interviews, but it will impact workplace culture and give employees the confidence to take risks and innovate knowing that mistakes are just signposts along the way.

Innovation and creativity come from trying fresh things. Sometimes. trying these may not work, but still delivers vital learnings. The downsides of not embracing failure are risk aversion and a fear of experimentation.

There’s also a leadership lesson in admitting failure. Leaders who don’t acknowledge failure or seek to shift the blame will immediately lose the respect of their teams and undermine morale, leading to office tension.

Standing up in front of a group, as a leader, and admitting mistakes is courageous. Showing this vulnerability can be seen as a sign of strength, because it conveys ultimate confidence.

Human evolution is about failure

We should remember that human progress has been an evolution, driven by different contributions from the billions who have gone before us. 

Einstein was a once in a century genius, but could he have done what he did without the mathematicians who went before him, beginning with the ancient Greeks, even if sometimes they got their sums wrong?

No one achievement, however great, has been the work of any one individual — they have only been building on the knowledge which has been accumulated over time and all previous experiences, some of which have been failures.

The reality is we all fail at some point, but how we do it is the important thing.  

From here on I’m determined to embrace and acknowledge my failures and let them be part of my future success.


Photo credit: iStockphoto/Andrii Zastrozhnov