Why every leader has to allow teams to fail (Inc)

By Robert Glazer

We all need room to make mistakes. The goal should be to learn from them and move forward, without repeating them. A company whose employees are constantly afraid of failing will only create subpar performance and significant problems in the future. 

For an example of what happens when employees aren’t free to fail, look no further than Volkswagen’s 2017 diesel engine debacle Volkswagen’s 2017 diesel engine debacle. According to many company executives, former CEO Martin Winterkorn was demanding and authoritarian and abhorred failure; he also fostered a climate of fear. 

A key part of Volkswagen’s aggressive growth strategy was a new diesel engine that would deliver low emissions and high efficiency–an audacious achievement. The problem was that, as the engine came into production, it didn’t meet the goals Winterkorn had publicly stated it would. 

Too afraid to bring this failure to their boss, the engineers used their collective ingenuity to cover up the problem, leading to billions of dollars in losses and damage to the brand. 

During tumultuous economic times, such as what we’re currently facing, employees are more afraid than ever to make mistakes or preemptively report potential problems. While they aren’t aiming to deceive company leadership, employees may decide to avoid bringing mistakes to their superiors’ attention, in hopes that the problem can be solved without anybody knowing about it. 

Nobody wants to have their mistakes spotlighted in an era marked by economic recession and layoffs. Leaders have to anticipate this fear and encourage the opposite: creating an environment where mistakes and failure are considered part of business, and instead pushing employees to be honest about their shortcomings and learn from them. 

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