The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, by Ron Friedman, PhD is probably one of the best management guides I’ve read. Why? Because it offers research-backed(!), carefully end-noted, practical advice for how to improve the workplace. All of this while being a fairly enjoyable read – the chapters start with an illustrative example, then move on to recent research, ending with a list of practical suggestions for both managers and “emerging leaders”. While the advice of the book would be best executed by a company owner or high-level executive, there’s still plenty of useful insight for those of us down in the trenches.
one warning: One of those illustrative examples includes a very vivid (although non-“graphic”) and unexpectedly intense description of a school shooting. This leads to a discussion about what we can learn about communication from hostage negotiators, if you’re wondering (and I’m sure you were).
Here’s a short excerpt from the first chapter of the book, which talks about Sara Blakely, founder of spanx, and the importance of encouraging failure:
Asked where she found the courage to surmount such staggering odds, Blakely says a big part of the credit belongs to her father. Or, more specifically, to the one question he would ask his children every night at dinner.
Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?”
When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.
“What he did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.”
Blakely was taught to interpret failure not as a sign of personal weakness but as an integral part of the learning process. It’s this mind-set that prepared her to endure the risk involved in starting her own business. When coming up short is viewed as the path to learning, when we accept that failure is simply feedback on what we need to work on next, risk-taking becomes a lot easier.
Her father’s question taught her an important lesson: If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
What’s odd is that in many ways it’s the precise opposite of the view espoused in most classrooms. From an early age, children are taught that success means having the right answers. That struggling is a bad sign, the sort of thing you do when you’re not quite “getting it,” or the work is too hard. Throughout much of their education, students are encouraged to finish assignments quickly. Those who don’t are sent off to tutors.
After twelve years of indoctrination, it’s no wonder that so many of us view failure the way we do: as something to avoid at all cost. We’re implicitly taught that struggling means others will view us poorly, when in reality it’s only by stretching ourselves that we develop new skills.
Some educators have begun recognizing the way this fear of failure is impeding their students’ long-term growth. Edward Burger, for one, is doing something about it. For more than a decade the Williams College mathematics professor has literally been rewarding students for failing in his class.
“Instead of just touting the importance of failing,” Burger wrote in a 2012 Inside Higher Ed essay, “I now tell my students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their grade is based on their ‘quality of failure.’”
Burger believes this approach encourages students to take risks. His goal is to reverse the unintended consequences of a school system consumed by testing. What was originally introduced as a feedback tool to foster better learning has had the opposite effect. When we reduce performance to As or Bs, pass or fail, good or bad, we make the learning opportunities that failure provides hard to appreciate.
At the end of each semester, students in Burger’s class are asked to write an essay examining a mistake they made. In it, they describe why they initially thought their approach might work and how their mistake helped them uncover a new way of understanding the problem.
Failure, per se, is not enough. The important thing is to mine the failure for insight that can improve your next attempt.
To be fair, at just 5 percent of a student’s grade, Burger’s unusual grading scheme hardly constitutes an academic revolution. But research suggests that his approach of rewarding intelligent failure may have more of an impact on his students than we might initially suspect, especially when it comes to promoting a thinking style that’s conducive to innovation. The reason, as we’ll soon discover, is that when the possibility of failure looms as a major threat, our mind does some funny things.