I was recently asked to speak at a conference where the theme was “Learning to Fail in the Spirit of Innovation.” The senior team shared that they aspired to create a culture based on trust and collaboration. Their goal was to enable their people to take risks without being afraid to fail, which currently wasn’t happening. As an organizational vitality strategist, I have found that there is a strong connection between failure and forgiveness.
Weeks later with approximately 500 people in the room, I tested the potential of this connection. I asked the audience to please stand up if, in the spirit of innovation, anyone had ever felt wronged by a colleague at work. Examples could have included someone taking credit for their work, inappropriately blaming them for a mistake, circumventing them in the decision-making process, questioning their integrity, or wrongly accusing them of acting with self-serving intentions and motivations.
As you may have guessed, everyone in the audience was standing. I then asked how many of them had fully addressed, let go of their resentment and forgiven their colleagues for these wrong doings? There were squeamish, quiet laughs in the audience.
This is because conflict among colleagues is both inevitable and required in the process of innovation, but moving past it can be difficult. Withholding forgiveness has a far-reaching ripple effect, starting with those involved and out to the organization as a whole. Complicating matters is that most colleagues need to depend on one another to accomplish their work so holding a grudge and commiserating while letting frustrations fester only serves to drain energy, increase negativity and draw out a difficult situation. Ultimately, the quality and quantity of innovative results are lost because no one is willing to risk failure in that environment; the cost is far too high.
Many organizations are quick to talk about the concept of failure yet miss that the impact of failure on humans is an emotional one and its hard! Acknowledging that is the first step. The second step is practicing it. Below are some strategic and productive practices to support forgiveness, repair relationships, restore trust, with the goal of helping people feel safe enough to take risks and learn from their failings.
There is a saying: “Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” The research on resentment is clear. Not only does it consume valuable time and productivity, but it also taxes your emotional and mental health. Additionally, there are strong connections to cardiovascular implications, such as increased blood pressure. Other studies have shown that the increased stress of perceived injustice can compromise your immune system, sleep and pain tolerance. While the other person may have wronged you, the most damaging impact is to yourself by holding onto the bitterness.
Alternatively, you can choose to forgive. This doesn’t mean you condone or accept the actions of the other person, but you make a conscious choice that after you have addressed it with that person, independent of the outcome of that conversation, whether they apologize or not, changed or not, you make a choice to hold onto forgiveness instead of being pulled into the negative hold of resentment. If you are looking to positively participate in a “fail and learn” culture and contribute to a happier and healthier workplace, this is an essential skill. The first person that forgiveness impacts is the forgiver, so hold onto that freedom.
Forgiveness and accountability are not dependent on one another, however, when paired are a very powerful couple. Outside of your home life, you spend the greatest amount of time at work. Your coworkers are going to make mistakes, feelings will be hurt, and both sides will feel misunderstood at times. To manage this, don’t lower your expectations, instead clarify them to establish accountability.
You can set behavioral parameters and agreements on how things will be handled next time if a similar situation arises. Increase touchpoint meetings to monitor accountability and be open to adjusting to changing requirements. Innovation means new, and anytime people are doing something new they are bound to do it imperfectly. Holding someone accountable catalyzes learning, forgiving failure enables innovation.
Forgiveness is a complicated concept, often misunderstood and more often said, but not genuinely given. It’s not uncommon for someone to say they forgive, but then hold an internal grudge over someone’s head for weeks, months or even years at a time. As a result, emotional residue builds and distrust keeps them in the past. Forgiveness is not the same as trusting someone. Forgiveness is free while trust must be earned. You can’t move the needle on trust when a lack of forgiveness holds you in the past.
In the age of innovation and disruption, it is easy to talk about failure. It takes courage to practice it, and even more, it takes courage to forgive it.