Stop Punishing Failure in the Workplace, and Start Rewarding It

Published: Jul 05, 2018
Modified: May 20, 2020


Failure is an inevitable part of life. So why is it so often met with punishment? Negative reinforcement might be helpful when studying lab rats, but when you bring it into the workplace, it starts to cause harm—both to your employees and to your business.

To understand failure’s impact, you must understand what actually motivates people. As writer Daniel Pink details in his book Drive, there’s more to your wants and needs than money, status, carrots, and sticks; the more powerful motivator is how you derive meaning from your work. Pink calls this the “third drive”: a desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

To harness the third drive, you must not only allow for failure, but also actively encourage it.

Freedom to fail

Allowing employees to fail might seem scary, but the results aren’t always negative. Giving someone the opportunity to take on a project and be in control of its outcome—without fear of punishment for failing—can be a powerful motivator, as reported by Quartz.

This autonomy and ownership lets employees derive purpose not only from completing work, but also from proving to superiors and peers that they can take on responsibility and perform under pressure.

So how can you, as a manager, encourage this “free to fail” mindset in your workplace? Here are a few steps to get you started:

Set aside time for employees to experiment. To help employees satisfy this thirst for autonomy and purpose, offer controlled environments where they can try something new, perhaps even something outside their role.

Companies like Atlassian, Google, and Facebook have operated a “20 percent time” scheme in which they allow employees to set aside time during their workweek for side projects without fear of reprisal in the case of failure. Several well-known products such as Gmail (maybe you’ve heard of it?) have come about as a result of this controlled space for experimentation. Companies with similar programs are consistently ranked as the some of the best places to work in the country.

Following this methodology can instill a sense that failure is not the end of the world. Doing good, productive things—even if you fail along the way—is better for the company than simply avoiding risk altogether.

Create employee-led cross-functional projects. You might generally try to keep projects siloed within one department. But by breaking this mold through low-risk assignments in different departments—you could, for example, ask your engineering team for a marketing idea—you create an opportunity for employees to truly experience the highs and lows of success and failure within a controlled environment.

These internal cross-functional projects bring forth the concept of “controlled failure”—one of the most powerful development tools in a manager’s arsenal.

Demonstrate how to deal with failure correctly. As a manager, the way you deal with failure in front of your employees will shape and influence how they react to difficult situations—and how they approach scenarios in which failure could have serious consequences. You must lead by example in all contexts, including when you fail to achieve your goal or complete a project.

While you can certainly acknowledge your disappointment, your focus should turn toward learning from your mistakes and moving forward. Your employees will learn that failure breeds productive, creative responses, not needless negativity and punishment.

Failure isn’t a waste of time—it’s the fertile soil that grows valuable lessons and long-term experience. By creating safe environments for employees to take risks without fear of punishment, you create a breeding ground for a stronger, more valuable team.

About The Author

Sebastian Bryers is the CTO and head of growth at Ora Organic, a digitally native retailer of organic, plant-based, and sustainable supplements based in San Diego. A member of Ora’s founding team, Bryers first served as a developer and designer before also assuming management, growth, and sales responsibilities. He previously co-founded web and app agency Shade & Bloom, which he left to pursue full-time work with Ora. He is based in Vancouver, British Columbia.