Failure Is Essential for Skills Mastery

wall art showing skills that if anything can go well it will

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, he talks about the three elements for high performance: purpose, mastery, and autonomy. Today I want to focus on the mastery component.

Please note, this isn’t to say that the other two elements aren’t important. Organizations should design work that has meaning and purpose. And, I’ve written several articles about autonomy and the need for organizations to teach employees how to be autonomous (i.e. self-managing).

But during this year’s SAP SuccessFactors Conference, Kathleen Hogan, chief people officer at Microsoft, said something that made me realize that organizations have to do more than simply train employees for mastery. She said that “failure is essential for mastery”.

Organizations hire employees for skills. They train employees to learn new skills or enhance the skills they have. Right now, organizations are spending a lot of time thinking about upskilling and reskilling. As a reminder, here’s how I define the two terms:

Upskilling is the process of acquiring new skills. It’s typically related to the job that the employee currently holds – for example, a programmer learning a new computer software program.

Reskilling involves learning new skills, but it’s usually for the purpose of transitioning to a new role. It could be for a promotional or lateral opportunity such as an administrative assistant learning how to code or an accounts payable clerk learning payroll.

Back to Hogan’s comment. As organizations start designing their skilling, upskilling and reskilling programs, are they thinking about failure? Are they building into their program design ways to teach employees how to fail successfully? In thinking about the general concept of failure, a few things come to mind.

Organizational culture needs to be okay with the relationship between risk and failure. People make mistakes. It’s part of human nature. But if every mistake can be a career limiting or ending move, then people won’t take risk. And while risk can result in errors, risk can often lead to innovation and breakthroughs that are beneficial to the business.

Personal accountability must be a core value. This ties into the first point about company culture. If employees know that they can admit when they make a mistake (i.e. fail), then they’re more likely to admit it and work toward fixing the error. If the organizational culture plays the blame game, then employees know they don’t have to hold themselves accountable.

Managers and employees should receive training on how to manage failure. When mistakes, errors, or failures happen, this doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. Usually, one of those consequences is that the mistake needs fixing. Organizations need to provide individuals with the skills to do the “fixing”, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and project management.

It’s not enough to simply give employees skills. Organizations need to give employees the ability to master skills, which includes being able to manage when something goes wrong. While this has always been important, I can see this being even more critical given our current hybrid workforce.

With employees working remotely, organizations need them to step up and admit when things aren’t going as planned. And they need managers who know how to effectively coach employees through failure into recovery and success. This allows projects to get back on track and the work to get done.

Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby after speaking at the Flora Icelandic HR Management Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland

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