How to Welcome Failure at Your Association

Success and innovation don’t come without taking some risks. Leaders can create a workplace environment that rewards risk-taking while embracing failure as an opportunity to grow.

Associations may be hotbeds of social and cultural change, but their operations sometimes don’t reflect that mover-and-shaker mentality. An organization that leans too heavily on tradition may have staid member offerings, insular boards, and a staff that doesn’t feel it can innovate. Employees can be key to organizational progress, but for that to happen, leaders need to create an environment that rewards judicious risk-taking. Which means welcoming failure.

“It’s about acknowledging failure and recovering from it,” said Christopher Gloede, chief consultant at Ricochet and former CMO at the American Bar Association. “Trying to downplay or ignore failures is not healthy in the long term.”

Consider these insights from Gloede to establish a culture that rewards risks—knowing full well that risks invite the occasional failure.

Remove the Stigma Around Failure

This is the first step, Gloede said. Employees shouldn’t feel the need to hide shortcomings with managers or spin the truth to make a situation look more favorable. If employees are afraid of failure and don’t feel they can acknowledge it without punishment, they won’t be willing to innovate. Removing the stigma starts with senior leaders, who should be open about failure and remind employees that failure presents an opportunity to learn and become stronger.

“We have to say the word ‘failure’ over and over, so it’s in the conversation,” Gloede said. “We have to say it out loud so it stops scaring everybody and then recognize that with failure comes an expectation of learning and pivoting to improve.”

Position Failure as a Learning Opportunity

Essentially, leaders should create a culture of consistent feedback and constant communication so employees feel they have support from leadership and know how to learn from failure. Remind employees that the path to success includes shortcomings and that even top organizations come up short.

“Remember Microsoft Bob? Remember Clippy?” Gloede said. “They failed but Microsoft learned about how to collect user data and interface interaction. Microsoft learned along the way and that has come to fruition in things like predictive text and predictive elements of the Microsoft Office that you use today.”

Reward Risk-Taking

If an employee takes initiative but then comes up short, leaders should make it a point to publicly acknowledge their efforts. Employees will feel empowered to take risks when they see that leadership awards the hard work that comes with trying something new. In Gloede’s case, he literally awards employees: On his projects, Gloede gives out the award for “Best Failure” to someone who took a risk, went beyond what was asked of them, and gave the organization learnings to grow from.

“Institutionalizing failure as one of the things that we’re not afraid of through an award pushes the culture forward,” he said.

Here’s how: Say an association launches an offering that isn’t getting as many registrants as they hoped. Instead of ignoring it, acknowledge the team that launched the project and celebrate their efforts. You could say something to the effect of: Great job, Frankie—Frankie has been working on this initiative for the last three months. We launched it, but we haven’t had the registrations we expected. Frankie, why don’t you talk about the status of the project, the great things you’ve learned, and how we’re making adjustments now to drive those registrations?

“That’s a positive conversation with accolades for the employee, but it acknowledges there’s a problem and that we’re talking about what we’re doing differently to improve,” Gloede said.

Encourage Smart Risks

Of course, reckless risk-taking can eliminate any chance of success. Leaders should encourage employees to try new things, but also provide tips such as getting consensus before launching a project and building an argument for why the risk will pay off. A risk that is backed by research and has buy-in is one worth taking.

“If you’re putting a larger percentage of our budget into a risky initiative that might fail, then you have an increased responsibility to get consensus up the ladder in your organization,” Gloede said.

When you set employees up for success, they’ll be more willing to take risks in the future.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect byline. We regret the error.

(solarseven/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Michael Hickey

By Michael Hickey

Michael Hickey is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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