Managers who are honest about failure make better leaders, people profession told

Closing the final day of the CIPD Festival of Work at London’s Olympia and online, podcaster and author Elizabeth Day urged organisations to talk more about mistakes

Credit: Peter Spinney/Rehmat Rayatt

Managers who are open about their own mistakes and failures make better leaders, Elizabeth Day told delegates at the Festival of Work.

Closing the final day of the conference, the author and host of the podcast How to Fail shared her own personal and professional life failures, including not speaking up for herself and not taking charge of her career because of people-pleasing in her twenties.

In doing so, Day reminded delegates that learning from failure is a cornerstone of human progress.

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Failing has long been taboo in workplaces as the world of work tends to emphasise the wins much more than the ideas and projects that simply did not pan out for one reason or another, she highlighted.

But fostering active learning from failure can be incredibly productive at work, Day said, advocating that managers hold quarterly ‘failure meetings’ alongside success meetings.

“What if we actually opened up a space for people to say, ‘this is the thing that went wrong this quarter, and it was really tough, and this is what, if anything, I learned from it’ because then that makes it a more friendly environment to speak up and own your own mistakes,” she said.

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Citing the work of American research professor, lecturer, and author Brené Brown, Day said both individuals and organisations could become better at talking about failure by allowing space for vulnerability. She added that vulnerability should not be seen as weakness because it often leads to innovation, creativity, and positive change.

On the way to fostering open and understanding workplaces, Day said managers needed to become more open about not having all the answers all the time, and dispel the myth that managers should be able to handle anything that comes their way at the flick of a switch.

“Sometimes it can feel very counterintuitive to say, ‘I don't know the answer. I'm not sure about that. This is a time in my life where things went wrong’. And actually, all that does in my eyes is make you a better leader and makes you a better manager of people, [it] makes you stronger in so many ways,” Day said. 

Acknowledging that it does take bravery and courage to be open about insecurities and issues as a manager, especially when so many people experience imposter syndrome at work, Day told the audience that she believes being vulnerable can encourage employees to do the same and allow them to grow more, both personally and professionally within organisations: “When you are encouraged to show up as your full self, you can bring so much more to the work that you do and so many more different ways of thinking rather than this very sort of blinkered stereotypical retrograde idea of what a corporate or work environment should be,” she said.