The Leadership Agenda

Explore now

A winning message to the workforce: Please fail

Failure is an inherent part of work, and it’s how individuals and organisations learn. Yet many companies don’t tolerate it.

Here’s a counterintuitive message to leaders: your people probably aren’t failing enough. In PwC’s 26th Annual Global CEO Survey, only 46% of CEOs say that leaders in their companies regularly tolerate small-scale failures. That’s a problem. When employees aren’t failing, they aren’t pushing boundaries or challenging established norms. Worse, that institutional mindset of collective compliance means that they’re likely not learning.

Overcoming this challenge requires a different leadership style. Many successful people have spent their careers rising up through a traditional command-and-control structure, where expectations were clear and the main challenge was measuring who exceeded those expectations and by how much. Today, amid much greater uncertainty, leaders need to create the right conditions for their teams to take risks, be creative and attack problems in unconventional ways.

Specifically, leaders can take three steps to reduce the fear of failure in the workplace and encourage risk-taking. 

  • Provide air cover. It’s a basic principle of leadership: give credit to your direct reports when things go right and take blame when they don’t. Make clear to your team that you expect some projects to fail, that it’s an inherent part of the process and that you’ll protect them from any consequences. Clarify the line between small-scale failures (an inherent part of any project) and large-scale failures (which can only be avoided if leaders put the right guardrails in place). 
  • Model the actions you want to see. Your behaviour as a leader carries far more weight than your words. Take risks in your own work and talk openly with your team when you fall short.
  • Rethink incentives. Most rewards, bonuses and promotions are still oriented around very traditional employee performance metrics, which is a good way to reward collective compliance but not a recipe for risk-taking, creativity or unconventional problem-solving.

The bottom line? If leaders are focused solely on success, they’re bound to fail. And if they encourage failures, they’re more likely to succeed. 

Explore the findings of PwC's 27th Annual Global CEO Survey.

Read more


Contact us

Jo Salter

Jo Salter

Director, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44(0)7710 035975

Follow us