How failure can make you better

Written on Dec 14, 2017

By Jessica Salerno, OSCPA content manager

A desire to avoid failure completely might be causing some companies to shortchange their employees’ growth and development.

Rampe“If people don’t feel they can safely fail then it will inhibit productivity and progress,” said Kristen Rampe, of Kristen Rampe Consulting. “You’ll stifle people from putting their best foot forward. They’ll be afraid if they don’t have the right answer then they don’t have any answer and then people aren’t thinking as fast and well as they could.”

Failure is inevitable, but the stigma that goes along with it can be terrifying. This can be especially true for CPAs and accountants who are positioning themselves as experts and advisors. Let’s be clear, no one is advising to carelessly fail at projects and assignments in a misguided attempt to learn. This is about strategic risk-taking, and potentially, strategic failure.

There are varying degrees of failure. For young professionals, Rampe said this could be as simple as admitting you don’t know what to do next on an assignment and telling the boss. Or it could mean suggesting next steps on a project that you’ve never done before.

Those steps might be completely wrong, Rampe said, but this is a learning opportunity. The employee might have failed in understanding what to do next, but the manager can show them the way and next time they will know better. But that safe learning environment must be in place for this to happen.

“This is an area for companies to be forward thinking,” Rampe said. “Do people feel like if they make a mistake it is going to be held against them and they will be held off of future projects?”

This is where Rampe said psychological safety at work comes into play. Employees need to feel safe enough to try things that might not work out, because they’re choosing to push their boundaries rather than only stay with what they know.

“This is really the differentiator for accounting firms now,” Rampe said. “It’s not about if you can process a certain amount of tax returns. It’s that you have thoughtful people who can understand complex issues and advise their clients rather than just put data into a box. It’s more important than I think people realize.”

Rampe explained there a few different ways to tackle failure. At one end of the spectrum is very low-risk decisions and at the other end is being cavalier about your choices. Aim for the middle instead.

“Coming up with a professional opinion and your explanation for that will propel your learning and progression toward being an expert,” Rampe said. “That could lead to failure. Knowing you’re going into something and you might fail, it’s good to know that.”

And it will serve your career better in the long run.

“If you’re never setting yourself up for situations that might not work, then that’s an opportunity to challenge yourself,” Rampe said. “If everything you’re doing is really safe, there’s more untapped potential to try something new and see how it goes.”


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