Failure is Acceptable, Failing to Try is Not

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering
As appeared in
Reflections on Excellence

Have you ever met someone who has never failed? In my 70 years on this earth, I have failed countless times, but each failure was a learning experience and a stair step to the next success. My parents never chastised me for failure, nor did they praise me for it. Instead, they instilled the mental discipline to accept failure as a fact, a minor setback, and then use it as a growth experience. My father, a middle school dropout, had two sayings he repeated throughout my early years. The first was “failure is to be expected, just never repeat it.” He explained that the only ones who never failed were those who did nothing. The second saying was “failure is acceptable, but failing to try is not.” Both, but especially the second, resonated for me. They have become my guiding principles.

Looking back over my life, I remember failures just as clearly as successes. Even though failure and being wrong on anything were and are not enjoyable, they have been essential to my growth. Each failure led to multiple successes, but more importantly led to a positive change.  Because of my parents and their beliefs, I have never feared failure and as a result have always embraced change and new ideas. This attitude led to stretching to accept challenges that took me completely out of my comfort zone and where failure was likely. Regardless of the outcome, each was a growing experience and in each instance, the company improved.

Perhaps that is why it is so hard for me to understand others who would rather maintain status quo than risk failure. Too many seem so fearful of failure that they are frozen into a routine of what has been—a time warp—that locks out any new ideas or acknowledgement that change is needed. Logic, data or impending doom have little impact on them. Like ostriches, they bury their heads and are impervious to the real needs of their company.

I must admit to frustration when dealing with these individuals and the impact they too often have on their operations. They do not recognize or will not acknowledge that fear of failure is an issue. Instead, they believe that the current state and their management style are best for the company. For some reason, this characteristic seems to find its way into key, typically mid-level, managerial positions. In these positions they are not high enough to set vision and strategy, but are perfectly placed to block or inhibit any attempt to stretch the organization or embrace new ideas.

Looking back over almost 50 years in the business world, most of the failures in my life resulted from my inability to convert this failure-averse element of middle and front-line managers. Even when this characteristic was limited to a small, seemingly insignificant number, failure resulted. The obverse is also true; where everyone was willing to risk failure, success followed.

As consultants charged with leading our clients through transformations, my colleagues and I have struggled to understand and change this dynamic. Some are quick to point to the corporate reward-punishment system as the root cause of this issue. Obviously, this contributes to the reluctance to try something new and risk failure and potentially dismissal. But the problem runs much deeper. Inherent in the DNA of most organization is a system that rewards perceived success, defined not so much as true success, but as not making waves. One can survive their entire working life, may even rise to upper management, without making any positive contribution—but they did not visibly fail at anything. This culture encourages low-profile management and an aversion to try new things and risk visible failure.

Too many failure-averse individuals carry this characteristic into their personal life as well. If the problem were solely the corporate reward-punishment system, this would not be true. One could argue that peer pressure or embarrassment in front of one’s family contributes to the failure aversion in their private life, but perhaps the real underlying cause is lack of self-confidence. When very, very young, I froze into absolute fear that others would laugh at me because of something I did and I would not participate in school activities. My school had amateur shows every Wednesday and all students were required to participate. I clearly remember being physically sick every time it was my turn. My fear of failure—of being laughed at—was so debilitating that I was frozen in abject terror. By forcing myself to participate (and occasionally suffering ridicule), I was able to overcome the fear and become comfortable with myself.

Fear of failure is a serious, insidious factor that causes too many organizations to be mediocre at best. To address this problem, one must first acknowledge its existence. This acknowledgement must start at the top of the organization and cause changes in the rewards and promotion systems, as well as the policies and procedures that govern behavior throughout the organization. In addition, executive-led mentoring of managers and supervisors, focused on positive risk-taking and embracing new concepts and ideas, is essential. To be truly successful, the organization must be comprised of leaders and managers, at all levels, who are open to change and willing to risk failure to succeed.

As individuals, we must look inward and honestly evaluate ourselves. If we find that we are failure-averse, we must find ways to overcome these characteristics. Get up on the stage and risk being laughed at; it really does not hurt nearly as much as you would think. As you do this self-evaluation, please remember that avoiding change or new ideas because of the risk of personal failure is not conducive to the organization’s health. Is it fair to hold the organization back because of your personal fear? Failure is acceptable, but failing to try is not.

“Failure is acceptable, but failing to try is not."

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,
R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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