The other day I was helping my son on a school assignment titled “Talk about a time you failed – how you reacted and what you have learnt from your experience”. Quite an ambitious and deep piece of homework for a 10-year-old! However, it made me think about the concept of failure and how I experience it in my personal and professional lives.  

On the verge of reaching half a century, I have inevitably failed many times; not pursuing an academic career when the time was right, too many decisions taken in the heat of the moment, failing friends... The list is long, and every time I have felt discouraged, guilty or not good enough in face of the inescapable humiliation of having to admit my mistake and take responsibility.

But is failure all bad? Can any good come as a result of failing?  

We are all fallible, imperfect and, at times, irrational human beings. Failure is part of human DNA; it is inevitable and always a possible outcome whenever we try something new. We mustn’t shy away from being curious, adventurous or taking risks due to the threat of failure, as the learnings or unanticipated benefits it might offer can often make it worthwhile.  

Many great inventions, past and present, were the result of something going wrong: the idea behind post-it notes was originally to develop a strong new adhesive using microspheres; Play-Doh, the stretchable clay used by millions of children around the world, was originally intended to be a wallpaper cleaner. This isn’t to mention the many ups and downs Apple went through before developing the Mac computer.  

So I started digging into the topic (in the meantime, my son had decided to take advantage of my distraction and switch to Minecraft) and came across the enlightening work of Amy Edmonson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. 

Edmonson is best known for her work on teams’ psychological safety and transformational change in the corporate world. Psychological safety refers to a person’s belief that they will not be punished or humiliated for expressing their thoughts, ideas or feelings. Edmonson’s research shows that psychological safety is an essential component of healthy and high-performing teams, with only psychologically safe teams proving able to truly experiment, speak out and, most importantly, fail and learn from their failures.  

In one word: innovate. 

Culture is shaped at the team level, with interpersonal dynamics and climate being essential components when creating a strong and successful corporate culture.  

Edmonson suggests that there are different types of failures, including some that can and should be prevented by following best practices. However, others – so called “intelligent’ failures – are those which we can learn from because they provide valuable knowledge and can guide future growth.  

In building a generative corporate culture and ensuring a psychologically safe working environment where teams feel empowered to take ownership and learn from their failures, the role of leaders can’t be stressed enough. Leaders have the agency to change the narrative around failure by encouraging a transparent and honest learning environment, in which experimentation and the intelligent failures that may follow are embraced and promoted, rather than blamed. A space where every individual feels safe to be themselves, listened to and inspired to set themselves challenging goals with curiosity and the genuine desire to learn from failure – and from each other. 

At White Marble Consulting, we are committed to fostering a vibrant and effective working environment. We conduct our own culture audit on an annual basis through a third-party tool powered by Human Insight, called the Quality of Interaction (QI) Index. This is the same tool we use with clients when assessing their company cultures.  

Central to the QI methodology is the belief that the quality of employees’ daily interactions, and their subsequent effectiveness, are underpinned by an environment where cognitive diversity (the different ways in which people process and experience the world) and psychological safety can flourish. By assessing both our current and desired culture via anonymous online questionnaires, we are not merely collecting data, but ensuring we truly listen to our employees’ areas of concern/for improvement, which can act as a roadmap for timely and effective action. 

If you are interested in understanding more about corporate culture, how we help our clients in their journey towards a more inclusive and diverse corporate environment, or would like to share your own experience, please contact us on [email protected]. 


Sources and further reading: 

Amy Edmonson, The right kind of wrong 

Amy Edmonson, Strategies for learning from failure  

Tim Harford, Adapt – Why success always starts with failure 

Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams