10 Steps to Empowerment 9: Permission to Fail

10 Dec

I’ve heard it said once that defeat can be more instructive than victory. A quick glance at history shows that the people who have achieved the most failed quite a bit. Abraham Lincoln ran for public office six times before he was elected. Thomas Edison tried 2,500 times to invent the light bulb. Albert Einstein failed math. Bill Gates tried to sell Microsoft to IBM to avoid bankruptcy. J.K. Rowling was rejected by an untold number of publishers, most of whom said that Harry Potter wouldn’t appeal to anyone. Babe Ruth holds the record for home runs and strike outs. Terry Bradshaw is the only Hall of Fame Quarterback with more interceptions than touchdown passes.

I could list more examples. But the point is that unless a person tries and fails, he’ll never learn what real success is. And that’s the point of the principle of empowerment: giving permission to fail.

Success and failure go hand-in-hand. That may seem counterintuitive to many, but upon reflection, most people decide that it’s true. This is a world defined by opposites. How can we know that one woman is beautiful unless we can see another who isn’t? How do we know what good is unless we see what evil is? This great philosophical truth means that we will never achieve success without failing first.

This principle is the toughest so far to implement in a high volume business like fast food, because even the smallest failure can create a chain reaction that will wreck the entire shift. We all know that it isn’t fun to play catch up. But, we must contrast that with the fact that most fast food places encourage mediocrity in its employees. We’ve discussed that failure is the key to success already. So without permission to fail, all we do is encourage more mediocrity. This is a vicious cycle. In order to succeed, we must occasionally fail.

I believe that the key to fast food success is nothing less than consistency. If, as a manager, you have a consistent record of success, then you can point to that record when you fail. Therefore, you may give your employees permission to fail, shoot for higher goals, and if a mistake causes everything to crash, just stand on your past record.

Before this principle can be applied, you, the manager, must create a track record of success. These will likely be small successes at first, since without permission to fail, the larger goals will be out of your reach. Small successes include good health inspections and other visits, a good rapport with direct and higher supervisors, a desire to advance to higher positions, good cash control, and consistent speed of service. Build a lot of these small successes and then you will have permission to fail from your supervisors–within certain limits. Know what those limits are.

Then build an environment that doesn’t penalize failure; but rather, penalizes inactivity or indecision. Tell people, in no uncertain terms, that you want them to make decisions for themselves. It is better to have made a decision–even a wrong decision–then to not do anything. Support and encourage them when they fail, and reaffirm their worth as people and as members of your team.

I’ve discussed One Minute Reprimands and I still believe that they are the best way to reprimand an employee. When someone does fail, they should still be subject to one of these, especially if it is a large failure. Giving people permission to fail is a separate idea from building an environment where people don’t care whether or not they do fail. There should still be consequences.

Remember that you must be in control when you give your reprimand. If you humiliate someone, then you will have destroyed all of your hard work to create an environment where people have permission to fail. The crazy lady in our marketing department has a quote in the signature of her e-mail that applies here: “They may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” Always make people feel like they are an important part of your team, even when they fail, and you will have very happy employees who are willing to take risks.

In the end, an environment like this will produce better results for your company.


One Response to “10 Steps to Empowerment 9: Permission to Fail”

  1. Sharon Rozier March 8, 2008 at 9:49 am #

    Should you write someone up for making a mistake

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