How to coach employees through failure
Throughout our careers, we will experience failure. I've previously shared how failure can be good for us: We learn from our mistakes and it can make us more empathetic. But from a leadership standpoint, how can we guide our employees through challenges and failure?
Leadership guru Dan Rockwell offers the "plate-drop challenge" to help leaders think through these situations. Part of our responsibility as leaders is to push people – and ultimately our organizations – to reach their full potential.
Each year, we extend goals to achieve more growth, which means asking people to take on more; but as you allocate more responsibility to employees, you might see other "plates" start to wobble.
Here are Rockwell's recommendations when this happens:
- Don't spin plates with them. Most of us get the urge to step in and fix problems when we see them arise. While this might prevent failure in the short term, it hinders employees' ability to learn from these situations and could lead to more problems down the road. If it's approaching crisis-level, leaders should do what they can to avert it, but also consider what contributed to its escalation in the first place.
- Let the plates fall and learn from failure. Leaders should use failure as a teaching opportunity and walk through what happened with employees. Rockwell says to consider the causation of failure, how leadership (or lack of it) contributed, and what they can do differently next time.
- Teach them to spin more efficiently. Part of the learning process is understanding how to balance your responsibilities. Ensuring employees know how to prioritize certain tasks or projects, when they should ask for help, and what resources they need to be successful are important.
- Don't automatically extend timelines when plates start wobbling. Accountability is an important trait that must be instilled by leaders. Set the example that, unless something is outside of your control, tasks and projects should be completed on time. Expectations should be met as long as employees are given adequate time and resources. However, keep in mind that it's not fair to expect employees to succeed under unreasonable circumstances or requests.
- Give some of their plates to someone else. It's common for high performers to take on a lot. Good leaders should know their employees' capabilities and also the red flags if they've taken on too much. If you see burnout or failure on the horizon, offer to help or to give some of their responsibilities to another team member. Each employee has a competitive advantage – make sure they're focused on what they do best.
How we respond to failure is a reflection of our character. Don't let failure stop you from taking on a challenge in the future. Rather, use it to better understand the process and how to be successful.
As we're in the middle of a pandemic that's drastically altered the way we do business, it might be scary to accept failure. We might even consider lowering our standards. I'd argue that now is the time to be flexible, give employees the autonomy to problem solve, and strive to do even better.
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