What It Really Means to ‘Celebrate Failure’ – and Why We Need To

I recently read an article featured on LinkedIn that was highly critical of celebrating failure. The author casted judgement on people that boast of any project or business venture that ultimately ends unsuccessfully, writing: “Stop glorifying failure. Failure is not fun. It’s not cool to fail.”

Defining Failure and Success is not so Black and White

What’s confusing about this particular write-up is that it neglects to put into context what it really means to fail. And come to think of it, mainstream media and its tendency to overindulge in the use of buzz-words may be guilty of having vernacularized the “Celebrate Failure Theory” into a more “clickable” phrase and thus in effect obscured the underlying meaning.

To be clear, it’s a fact that since the dawn of the Information Age successful organizations have adopted a strategy to develop robust learning cultures. This has invariably resulted in a shift in how we define “failure,” and so “neglecting to achieve particular, pre-defined, objective results” no longer measures up as an accurate definition—at least when referring to the type of failure that organizational psychologists, scientists, and modern business leaders insist we celebrate. Here is why.


In Tolerating Failure We Build a Culture of Trust

Routinely chewing up your employees in front of their peers for minor errors will not only hurt your efforts to develop a strong team, but will also likely lead to higher turnover rates when your staff come to realize they don’t have to work for an overbearing toxicity fountain of a boss. Curators of top talent create an environment where employees are not afraid to admit to and learn from mistakes they make.

It’s no surprise that people are happier when they are not living in fear of reprisal from making small errors. And research shows that organizations that foster high employee job satisfaction are more capable of attracting and retaining employees with the skills that it needs, and are more profitable.


Failure is Not Always the Result of Poor Execution

Sometimes despite following through on a well-devised plan the results we seek elude us for one reason or another. We find that the targeted results will take longer than we had expected to achieve, or that the variables we held constant in formulating our plan have changed. And sometimes in retrospect we find that our plan just plain sucked.

Having worked as a recruiter in the medical field I once asked a health care executive how she would approach an employee that failed an aspect of a performance evaluation. She replied, “Before putting blame on the individual I would first ask whether there is a proper policy or plan in place and if it needs to be adjusted. Next, I would ask whether the employee has received adequate training in order to execute said plan or policy. Finally, I would deal with the behaviour of the employee.”


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The point is, proper execution doesn’t assure us of success and at times employees are not even clear on what is expected of them in the first place.


Sometimes Failure Yields Greater Benefits Than Success

Need examples of projects or ventures that didn’t “succeed” in meeting expectations but managed to deliver? Well, “Post-its” were supposed to be a super-adhesive, and Play-Doh was intended to be wallpaper cleaner—but both failed. Not to mention X-rays, chocolate chip cookies, and countless other inventions that were all unintended consequences of failure.

Surely one could not discount the fact that creativity and experimentation often yield failures that are more valuable than the originally established objectives. And while these examples herein might seem monumental compared to what goes on in the average business on a daily basis, it still makes a case for even the stingiest KPI-Tyrants to bend occasionally despite the needle not moving in the right direction.


Types of Failure that Need Not Be Rewarded

Finally, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but perhaps the author I mentioned earlier was considering much less sophisticated examples of failure. It’s important to address these as well, so here are a few examples: Failing to show up for work after copious consumption of alcohol, driving one’s car through a convenient store window after pulling off the road to text a friend, and gambling away your company’s seed money at an online casino—these are all examples of failure that don’t require a reward.