Want to Build a Culture of Learning? You Need to Embrace Failure

July 17, 2017

Instilling a growth mindset into your culture is essential for building a culture of learning.

Building a culture of learning is the goal of most learning and development teams. And for good reason, as not only does it fit within their mission, there are clear business benefits.

For example, a study by ATD discovered top performing companies are five-times more likely to have a culture of learning than lower performing ones. And business leaders believe the only way to compete moving forward is for their workforce to constantly learn new skills, which a culture of learning provides.

All that’s great. But here’s the real question – how do you actually build a culture of learning?

Well, according to L&D Leader Britt Andreatta, a key aspect is your company needs to embrace the right kind of failure.

“The truth is that learning and failing are inherently linked,” Andreatta said in her LinkedIn Learning course, Creating a Culture of Learning. “You cannot have a positive and vibrant culture of learning if you do not also have a culture that is safe for taking risks and making mistakes, period.”

Andreatta, in her Growth Culture Model™, compared creating a culture of learning to growing a tree, with employees represented by the tree itself. And the soil that tree grows in represents how people are treated when they take risks and make mistakes.

“It's the very foundation in which the success of your organization is rooted,” Andreatta said. “To grow a healthy tree, you must start with good soil. If it's sitting in toxic soil, it will never reach its full potential no matter how much sunlight and water it receives.”

Six questions that determine how your company really feels about failure

It’s great to say your company welcomes people experimenting and failing. But does that actually happen in practice?

To assess how your company really feels about failure, Andreatta suggests asking yourself these six questions about your culture:

  • Do people admit when they don’t know something or ask for help?
  • What happens when someone makes a mistake or fails? Are they teased or shamed or are they encouraged to look at what happened and try again?
  • When people make mistakes or challenge ideas, do they ultimately get sidelined, demoted or red?
  • Do people admit their mistakes and take responsibility for fixing them or do they blame others?
  • Do managers and leaders share stories of how they took risks or recovered from a failure?

“All of the amazing training programs in the world won't help if people don't feel safe enough to stretch and grow,” Andreatta said.

How to build a culture that embraces failure

Regardless of your company’s current stance on failure, L&D teams can work to make people feel even more safe to experiment and take risks. In her course, Andreatta offered four tactics L&D teams can use to further integrate that culture:

1. Explain to your employees the difference between a fixed and growth mindset.

Change starts with awareness. L&D teams should communicate the difference between a fixed and growth mindset. This can be done at in-person trainings, during onboarding, via online communication; basically any time L&D interacts with employees.

For context, a person with a fixed mindset is a person that believes their talents are innate and cannot be improved upon; i.e. they are what they are. A person with a growth mindset believes their talents can be improved through practice.

“I do this all the time, and you'd be surprised how much just explaining these concepts can quickly shift people’s understanding of their own mindset,” Andreatta said.

2. Create an environment that’s safe to take risks.

Growth mindset means working to improve a skill. That invariably leads to some degree of failure until that skill is mastered.

“Most fixed mindset folks are anxious about making mistakes, so to overcome their natural hesitation, you have to intentionally create an environment where mistakes are valued for the vital role they play in growing and improving,” Andreatta said. “Google found that psychological safety was the key differentiator when exploring what set their high performing teams from the others in their global workforce.”

3. Make learning a normal and valued activity.

To encourage learning, you need to allow time for learning. You can encourage this by publicly praising people who have taken time to learn new skills.

Work to praise all types of employees for learning; from the CEO to front-line workers.

4. Acknowledge and reward learning.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road to many employees. If employees are acknowledged for learning and if learning is part of their performance review, they’ll continually prioritize it.

To operationalize this, a certain part of performance reviews should be based on the new skills an employee learned in the past year. Did the employee push himself or herself to learn new skills or do they possess the same general skillset they had a year ago?

The takeaway

Learning a new skill invariably means failure, as few people are experts in something the first time they try it. Only after a few failures do they begin to improve that skill and ultimately improve themselves.

If an employee receives a negative reaction to failing – perhaps they are ostracized or embarrassed by their boss, for example – they will be weary of failing again. It’s the equivalent of touching a stove and burning your hand. After that, you aren’t going to touch the stove again.

Only by embracing failure will a person push forward and ultimately learn a new skill. Hence, to create a true culture of learning, your culture needs to welcome the right kinds of failure.

*Image from Jeff Djevdet, Flickr

Want to create a culture of learning at your company? Watch Andreatta’s full course today.