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Can failure be a useful learning tool?

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Leaders need to stop seeing failure as a red flag and start seeing it as an opportunity.

“I’m struggling with one guy in particular, and I’ve decided I’m going to let him fail on this first project. That’s the only way I can motivate him.” This was a client’s response when I asked how her new managerial role over a team of remote workers was going. She expanded, “The other team members are self-starters, technically savvy, and don’t need much guidance, but this guy isn’t taking directions well and isn’t pulling his weight.”

Is failure a useful learning tool? Absolutely. But only when the consequences of that failure are contained, the team is prepared to deal with them, and the manager who is “allowing” the failure turns that experience into an opportunity for growth and team building.

How to avoid this conversation? Use an accurate and reliable assessment suite (behavioral and cognitive) to better understand your people and their natural abilities.

This conversation could have been prevented if my client had her employee’s behavioral data, because she would have already known how that person would behave in the workplace, what drives that person, and which of that person’s workplace behavioral needs are not being met.

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Without the data, however, here’s what you could have done if you traded spots with her:

Reframe motivation to communication.

If you find yourself in charge of teleworkers, you need to take time to get to know what makes them tick. Build a relationship with them to understand their strengths and weaknesses, what gets them excited about work, and learn their anxieties. These early “learning conversations” will give you the building blocks to communicate with your team members in a way that leads to clear expectations and understanding, even when your are exchanging difficult messages.

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Focusing too much on how to motivate people is putting the cart before the horse. You should focus on building a relationship with them so you learn how to communicate with them effectively. Only then will you be able to properly motivate your team members.

Will allowing a team member to “fail” on his first project build trust, respect, or loyalty? Doubtful. To create highly functioning teams – including virtual teams – have everyone take high quality behavioral and cognitive assessments. This data is the oil that keeps the machine running.

In addition, managers of teleworkers should take the following communication steps to create virtual accountability:

  • Be transparent about your managerial process and philosophy.
  • Give them reasons why you are doing things and bring conversations back to project goals and team growth.
  • Determine the level of shared decision making that you are comfortable with. This will depend on your personal style and work culture.
  • Determine the level of micro-management you’re comfortable with and that your team members need. This emerges from their past performance and skills.
  • Shift from statements to questions whenever possible.

After a more thorough discussion, it was clear my client had determined that this failure would be contained and she was prepared to deal with the consequences, but she hadn’t thought enough about how she could have framed this experience as an opportunity for growth, for team building, and for growing a productive relationship with this team member.

Zach is the founder and CEO at Spark the Discussion.

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