Better Bosses Want Their Employees to Fail – and Aren’t Afraid to Do So Themselves

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By John Lonsdorf, President, R&J Public Relations

It may sound counter-intuitive, but better bosses actually want their employees to fail.  Ok, maybe I’d better define “failure” before we go too much farther here.

By failure, I mean stretching their boundaries.  Offering ideas.  Trying new and innovative ways to ultimately achieve success.  Figuring out ways to help the company and its customers to do more.  To do what it is that they do better.  And to do what they do for less money or with fewer resources devoted to its completion – even if that sometimes means that they miss the mark.

By this definition of failure, most new ideas and suggested tactics will fail to be implemented.  But even if their ideas sometimes fail, you still want employees to keep producing them.  Because when one of these ideas gains traction, it can be transformational.

As a boss, I struggle to achieve this state of business Nirvana – where employees feel free and empowered to consistently offer out-of-the-box thinking and ideas that might ultimately drive greater success.  I know that engaged employees feel a sense of empowerment, and are not afraid of making a suggestion, even if it’s one that doesn’t ultimately get adopted.

Engaged employees are the cream of the crop.  They are fully involved in – and enthusiastic about – their work.  They work with passion, partly because they feel a profound connection to their company.  This connection allows them to act in ways that advance their organization’s interests.  In short, they drive innovation and move the company forward.

Good bosses work to foster a culture of employee engagement (note:  not simply employee “satisfaction,” or even “accountability.”  No, I’m talking about genuine engagement).  To the quintessential “great boss” this comes naturally.  Others (like me) need to work at it.  But just as we hope our employees will put themselves “out there” at the risk of failure, it behooves the bosses to similarly take chances, to help employees feel free to bring new ideas to the table, to set an example and model this behavior, and to not allow the fear of looking vulnerable to employees prevent us from taking chances that might result in significant improvement.  In short, bosses, like employees, need to learn how to productively “fail forward.”

There are many ways to promote employee engagement.  In fact, a whole sub-species of business books has been written on the subject.   But if you’re the boss –and this applies even if you are not the big boss – a good place to start is by looking in the mirror.  Remind yourself that an organization tends to mimic the example set by its leaders.  Ultimately, it is OUR CHOICE to lead our people, and to help them to help us to become the kind of business that we want to be.  Sometimes this will result in failure, but in this respect, the failure of the boss can often motivate and inspire.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”  Leading by example and productively failing can often be highly inspirational.

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