Friday, April 30, 2021

Why Leaders Should Share Stories of Adversity & Failure

Source: Wikipedia

Leaders should set high expectations for their team members, much as great teachers do.  They should demand excellence and maintain high standards.  At the same time, leaders have to instill a belief in their team members that these lofty goals are achievable.  They have motivate others to work through adversity.  Too often, employees perceive the path to success for senior executives as seemingly smooth and fast.  They don't know about the obstacles, failures, and mistakes.  Understanding the rocky nature of the path to success actually matters.  Leaders who share stories of their own challenges and failures can actually motivate their employees more effectively than those that appear infallible.  Moreover, sharing failure stories actually helps build pscyhological safety, as Amy  Edmondson has argued.   In Unlocking Creativity, I wrote about fascinating research by Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and her colleagues on this topic.  Here's an excerpt: 

Recent research by Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and her colleagues demonstrates that children learn more effectively when they appreciate the hardships and struggles of people who ultimately attained great discoveries. They asked more than 400 high school students to read stories about famous scientists. Some students read stories about the mistakes that Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday made at one point or another. The narratives recounted how these scientists learned and recovered from their failures on the path to a remarkable breakthrough. Other students read stories about the personal hardships experienced by these three scientists. For example, they learned about how Faraday came from a very poor family and encountered religious prejudice throughout his life. The third group of students read heroic tales of achievement by these three individuals, with little discussion of failures or adversity.

The researchers tracked the students’ grades in their science class before and after they read these stories. The average academic performance of the three groups did not differ prior to the study. Remarkably, the students who read stories about intellectual struggles and personal adversity exhibited higher science grades in the subsequent six-week period than the students who read heroic stories of scientific genius. Most importantly, the lowest-performing students experienced the biggest boost in performance after learning about the messiness of the scientific process.

Leaders should think about sharing their own stories of adversity and failures with colleagues and subordinates. Organizational learning expert Amy Edmondson argues that the most effective leaders model curiosity for team members and acknowledge their own fallibility. In so doing, they make it safe for team members to experiment and make mistakes. Individuals become comfortable pursuing the issues and questions that arouse their curiosity, because they do not fear being blamed or punished if their experiment fails.

Sara Blakely, founder and CEO of Spanx, remembers conversations with her father as a child. He often would ask about her recent failures. Blakely recalls telling him, “Dad, Dad, I tried out for this, and I was horrible!” He did not express disappointment in his daughter. Blakely loved his response, “He would actually high-five me and say, ‘Congratulations, way to go!’ Failure for me became not trying, versus the outcome.”

Blakely has tried to send the same message to everyone in her organization. Several years ago, she played the Britney Spears song, “Oops, I Did It Again” at a company-wide meeting. Then she recounted a series of errors that she had made as Spanx grew and prospered. Blakely sent a clear message to her team: I’m fallible too. I understand that failure will occur when people try new things.

- Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, Janet Ahn, Jondou Chen, Fu-Fen Anny Fang, and Myra Luna-Lucero, "Even Einstein struggled: Effects of learning about great scientists’ struggles on high school students’ motivation to learn science," Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, no. 3 (2016): 314-328.
- Amy Edmondson. Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).
- Kathleen Elkins, “The surprising dinner table question that got billionaire Sara Blakely to where she is today, Business Insider. April 3, 2015. Accessed March 5, 2018.
- Shana Lebowitz, “A self-made billionaire explains how Britney Spears helped her teach a key business lesson to her employees,” Business Insider, June 22, 2016. Accessed March 5, 2018.

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