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How not to fear the F word

15 July 19

We are all bound to fail at some point, and this should not be attacked but used as a learning tool, with our managers leading by example

by Suzy Wright

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.” (Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, 1983)

The psychology of failure

The concept of failure is uncomfortable territory for lawyers. It involves admitting that we got something wrong, and we find that a difficult notion. Yet recognising failure, understanding its impact and learning from it are important skills in the arsenal of the modern lawyer. 

It is understandable why lawyers find it difficult to confront failure. From school through university, we are used to succeeding and topping the academic tables. That continues in practice, particularly the early stages when progression is often a steady constant. We become accustomed to things going our way, and success follows success. Looking around the profession, everyone appears to be succeeding: LinkedIn and Twitter are awash with lawyers and firms promoting their successes: the latest listing, the award win or that sought-after promotion.

Yet, who amongst us has not failed? It is impossible to progress through one’s career without failing. The pace of change today, particularly where technology is involved, means that lawyers are constantly operating in volatile, uncertain and ambiguous circumstances. Failure at some point is almost certain, making it vital to understand and tackle failure in a progressive manner.

Intelligent failure v incompetent failure

It is important to highlight that understanding failure is not a “dropping of standards”. Reckless or “incompetent” failure, such as failing to understand and apply legal principles or to manage deadlines (or repeating the same mistakes), is not to be tolerated and should be redressed through coaching. 

“Intelligent failure”, on the other hand, comes when new ways around problems are attempted, without letting the core competencies lapse. For example, understanding and using legal tech are important skills for lawyers to develop, but trying new things may appear to result in our traditional view of failure by not achieving the desired result first time. However, it may lead to a different solution, possibly using design-thinking principles such as ideation and prototyping, turning this intelligent failure into a positive.

The benefits of understanding failure

Recognising and responding to failure shows humility and authenticity. It demonstrates to colleagues that you are emotionally intelligent enough to recognise your fallibilities. It removes the fiction of perfection around some individuals and encourages others to be equally open, creating a culture where problems and risks are shared at an early stage, rather than swept under the carpet for fear of looking foolish. Even if errors are made, there should not be a culture of blame or recrimination. Instead, suitable coaching, training and remediation should be implemented to avoid unresolved issues becoming problematic. If that results in a new process to avoid that mistake happening again, the failure becomes a success.

Operating in an environment which embraces openness and disclosure also reduces stress, creating a better working environment. One where no one bottles up anxieties and allows them to become detrimental to their wellbeing.

Psychological safety

Creating this environment is not easy. It requires a culture of psychological safety (a term coined by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson), where there is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. 

In practice, a psychologically safe environment is one where everyone, regardless of seniority, is encouraged to speak up to share ideas, challenge others’ ideas and have complete trust that their opinion will be treated as valid and valuable to the team, without fear that it will reflect negatively on them. In short, an environment where people can be vulnerable.

To create this and set the tone, leaders need to live and breathe the concept and display vulnerability themselves. Taking inspiration, support and guidance from the #failurecamp sessions run by Professor Cat Moon, director of innovation design for the Programme in Law and Innovation at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, RBS’s Outsourcing Technology & IP team recently ran its own “failure camp”. During a powerful three-hour session in a closed room, the team analysed the aspects of failure discussed in this article and the importance of psychological safety. Team members were willing to be vulnerable, and shared times when they had failed and what they had learned. 

In the result, an already close team feels more secure, able to share missteps and lessons learned, all of which supports the generative risk culture central to modern banking standards. It stands the team in good stead for future failure camp sessions, where we will look to adopt ideas and best practice from other industries with a mature approach to addressing failure and psychological safety, including aviation and healthcare. 

Forward thinking failure

The results of understanding failure can be transformative for the modern lawyer. Providing solutions to problems in a complex commercial world is challenging, but the fear of failure should not be inhibiting. Creating a psychologically safe environment where people freely share creativity can only serve to improve team learning and intelligent risk taking, innovative thinking and team wellbeing.

Suzy Wright, Outsourcing, Technology & IP, RBS

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