Words matter. Top management can help employees overcome the fear of failure that can undermine their performance by communicating that failure is a natural part of learning.
Failure can undermine the confidence of employees, causing them to avoid setting ambitious goals, and to experience high stress and give up more easily when faced with challenges. Many leaders thus recognize the need to help their people overcome their natural fear of failure in order to improve their performance and results.
One approach to reducing the fear of failure is to emphasize to employees that failure is part of the process of learning, not a reflection of the employees’ ability. Can simple verbal encouragement from senior management, however, be enough to shake off the fear of failure in employees?
A study comparing the attitudes and performance results of two groups of employees—one group encouraged by a top executive to treat failure as a natural part of learning, the second group receiving no such encouragement—revealed the power of a leader’s words in changing attitudes and behaviour.
The employees in the study were part-time consultants for a multi-national direct sales company. The company was organized into independent regional ‘distributorships’ that included sales managers and directors at the leadership level, and sales consultants who sold the company’s kitchen and home preparation, serving, and storage solutions.
The study involved 20 distributorships. In August 2016, consultants from these distributorships gathered for a series of four sales meetings. Before the first sales meeting, researchers conducted interviews and a survey exploring consultants’ experiences working for the company, as well as specific survey questions on job confidence and perceptions about failure.
During each the four sales meetings, a group of consultants watched a video message from the company’s regional head. The message included the following: “Don’t be afraid of failure. Setbacks and failures are part of the journey of all of us, but when we make mistakes trying it should only inspire us to think more creatively the next time…” A second group of consultants also watched a video message from the regional head, but this message only discussed the history of the company.
After the fourth meeting, all employees were surveyed once again, answering the same questions from the first survey. Finally, the researchers collected data on employee performance for 17 weeks before the sales meeting and the experiment, and 17 weeks after.
One important and unplanned factor in the study was the state of Brazil’s economy that, during the period of the study, experienced a significant downturn because of political scandals.
A comparison of the two groups of employees in the study showed that the words of the regional head encouraging consultants to consider failure as a natural part of learning had a significant effect. In the 17 weeks after the sales meetings, sales commissions for both groups of consultants took a hit because of the scandal-driven economic downturn. However, sales commissions of consultants who had received the messages not to fear failure were approximately 14% or $55 per month higher than commissions of consultants who had not viewed these messages (a significant result given the average monthly wage for similar work in Brazil ranged from $292 to $392). The difference between the two sets of consultants increased over time, indicating that the impact of the failure-as-learning message was not short-lived.
The survey results indicated a reason for this extra work during a period where failure was more likely: job-specific confidence. In the pre- and post-meetings surveys, those who had watched the video messages on failure as learning expressed greater confidence in their ability to do the job after the sales meetings than before. There was no such change in confidence for those who had not watched the failure-as-learning video messages. Subsequent performance analyses confirmed that those who expressed greater job confidence after the meetings increased their commissions.
The researchers also found through their analyses that top leadership communication on treating failure as learning improved employee performance by reinforcing social norms that encouraged employees to persevere in the face of failure.
Leaders should not underestimate the power of their words. There is much talk of ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace, which assures employees that they can speak up and tell the truth without fear of retribution. Employees need the same psychological safety to encourage them to risk failure. Casting the creation of such psychological safety as ‘culture change’ makes the process daunting and, therefore, too easily delayed. This study shows that a few well-chosen words from top leaders authentically encouraging employees to treat failure as learning opportunities is enough to change attitudes and behaviours.
How Controlling Failure Perceptions Affects Performance: Evidence from a Field Experiment. Matthew Cronin, David H. Erkens, Jason D. Schloetzer & Catherine H. Tinsley. The Accounting Review (March 2021).
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