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Embrace failure to build resilience

A new research report from CEMS, the global alliance in management education, found that leaders building psychological safety will thrive post-pandemic. But how can leaders build the psychological safety for people to be their best selves and thrive under pressure? 


‘Resilience’ has been the buzz word for 2020 as organisations and employees are faced with challenges they have never experienced before, both professionally and personally.

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the “process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress… As much as it involves bouncing back from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.”

While it is clear that resilience is not a topic that can be taught directly, withstanding adversity, recognising and releasing stress, as well bouncing back quickly and effectively can all be developed by cultivating a culture of embracing failures. 

Failure is traditionally feared by employees and leaders because achievement is the fundamental form of assessment, both formally and informally. Besides, failure can potentially be costly to a company.  

As the pandemic has taught many of us, it is difficult to map a straight course to success, instead we must be able to venture into uncertain paths and change and adapt along the way. 

Organisations must adjust their mindset to reframe failing as a necessary part of progress. Instead of only celebrating successes, give failures and what you learn from them equal visibility. This can be done in an organisation in several ways:

  • Incorporate messages of failure stories in management meetings to cultivate a culture of acceptance that certain ideas may not work after testing and it is okay to move on and explore other new ideas. It is also a fundamental mindset that can be demonstrated by senior leadership to foster innovation and promote intelligent risk taking. 

  • Restructure performance review from an annual assessment process to more frequent conversations throughout the year. This allows discussions between team leader and team member to be more focused on learning rather than achievements and creates more comfort in exploring opportunities through failures.

  • Frequently encourage sharing of failure experience within teams and use it as an opportunity for others to contribute to ideas. This not only helps the person to bounce back from the situation, but also fosters teamwork and peer coaching to support each other emotionally.

Leadership also plays a key role in cultivating a culture of embracing failures. Leaders attitudes towards their team members experiencing failures is fundamental in building their psychological safety. 

Empathetic leaders can recognise team members’ stress when facing adversity provide consistent support while still ensuring their responsibility for the outcome. 

Learning & development departments can also play a key role in strengthening the resilience of our workforce and next generation of leaders.

Traditional academic education, particularly in Asia, has wired learners to focus on getting the correct answers and acquiring knowledge. Experiential learning and peer learning are already great ways to offer a safe setting to transform failure as learning experience.

Corporate training programmes should also consider making failure an explicit topic to be explored during leadership training, especially exploring the learners’ feelings when facing failure or an adverse situation and how they can strengthen their tenacity.


More tips for building resilience in HR

How to develop your resilience as an HRD

How energy affects your resilience

HR health and wellbeing special 3/6: Can workforce resilience be nurtured to cope with economic downturn, bereavement, conflict and mental health concerns?

HR: Human Resilience ebook 


Unfortunately, there is no quick win in building resilience in an organisation. It requires effort from senior leaders in setting the right tone from the top, management to live the value on a day-to-day basis, and HR to transform the current learning and development process and put appropriate programmes in place.

While it may require a change of mindset to embracing failure, the effort will be well worthwhile. As we have all learnt from the pandemic, a resilient workforce will go a long way in helping an organisation to continue to innovate, be agile and navigate in the changing world. 

Bianca Wong is regional head of human resources at Hilti Asia