Counselor Commentary: Celebrate The Failures

Support Employees Even When Times Are Tough

Dave VagnoniIt sure sounds counterintuitive – if not downright ridiculous – to make merry after a project floundered or an order got colossally screwed up. Yet, one of the themes from top firms at last week’s Best Places to Work Conference in Chicago was exactly that – stuff happens, so deal with it ultra-positively, instead of plunging morale into the toilet. Sure, it may be Hollywood-esque to throw a chair, bang a wall or launch a curse-laden tirade. You’ll look tough and staff will fear you. Whoa – big win there.

Let’s put it all out on the table. Employees know when they mess up. Do you really need to remind them, rub it in, threaten their job, or worse give them the extended silent treatment? And please don’t hold 15 meetings about whatever the issue was or is. Yes, there should be consequences for repeated employee mess-ups, but isn’t it your fault for hiring the wrong person to begin with? (You don’t have to think too hard, the answer is yes.)

So what can you do to celebrate a failure? Some things work better than others. For example, people usually don’t like to belt out tunes after a misstep, so karaoke is probably out. Food always makes people feel better, though. Order some pizza, have a cookout, eat a little ice cream, break out a few bottles. The key is to make it unexpected and spontaneous so employees can recognize you support them when times are rough. It’s also OK to inject some humor – a bit of friendly razzing never hurt anybody. It might even start to take the scarlet letter off the person most responsible for the office headache.

By the way – and this is easy to miss – sometimes failures come from staff trying extra hard to be creative or unorthodox. This is good. You should be embracing a culture of experimentation, where staffers will push themselves to do things differently. Our industry, you know, is supposed to be fun. Why make it plain? Cookie cutter? Uninventive?

Whether every attendee realized it or not, there were a bunch of statements and stories during the Best Places Conference that should be remembered and reiterated often. Included in the mix is this simple line from David Woods, the president of AIA Corporation (asi/109480), delivered in his firm, but gentle, grandfatherly way. “What’s so important,” Woods said, “is that people at the top have to be committed to the effort.”

Which then begs the question: What do you stand for as a leader in your company? Here’s hoping you stand with your staff, instead of over them. Now go find something to celebrate.