Ask Jo: Should I let my team fail?

Question: My manager told me I need to let my team fail. I am reluctant to let that happen. I don’t want to disappoint our customers or demotivate my team.

Answer: When your manager tells you to “let people fail,” it’s her way of encouraging you to empower your people, let go of the details, take a step back, and be willing to let your people mess up from time to time. If team members never get a chance to risk failure, you’re being too protective of them. Failure can be a powerful teacher.

Have you ever seen adult who is a serious cyclist, dressed head to toe in spandex, go for a long-distance ride… with training wheels? Of course not! Kids use training wheels to learn how to ride, but eventually the training wheels have to come off. Falling and failing is part of what it takes to become a skilled and competent rider.

What your manager is trying to say is, “It’s time to take off your team’s training wheels.”

Your team won’t become fully competent and autonomous in their roles with you hovering to closely over them, especially if you never allow them to make a decision or take a risk. By protecting them from failing, you’re also protecting them from succeeding.

I do recommend talking to your manager. Ask her for more details and direction about what “letting the team fail” looks like. Discuss and agree on what you’ll let your team take ownership of. Decide how much risk you’re willing to tolerate while you get more comfortable with this. Encourage your people to take some small risks at first.

When a team member makes a mistake or a poor decision or disappoints a customer, don’t immediately rush in to fix things. Give them some time to digest what’s just happened, and then ask questions, like:

• What happened?

• Was the result different than you expected?

• Why was the result different than you expected?

• What did you learn from this?

• What will you do differently next time this situation arises?

(It’s a really good idea to ask yourself these questions, too, to see if there’s anything you can learn as their manager.)

Then congratulate your employee on trying something new and their willingness to learn from the experience. Ask what risk they would like to take next, and let them know they have your support.

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Jo Miller

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.net and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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