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The privilege to fail

Written by: Amy Stern, Managing Director, Research and Strategy, BI WORLDWIDE
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Failure can lead to success when it's viewed as taking smart risks. It can also lead to losses and a lack of future opportunity when it's not met with support and advocacy. Learn how to support your employees when they take risks to pay dividends for your organization.


Failure has entered the zeitgeist as a key to success — Images of tech giants starting businesses in their garages or thirty ideas that didn’t work before an innovator found the one that did.


Let’s pause and think about this. How does bias and privilege relate to failure? Biases can shape the way we view people and certain events. When someone fails, our bias about that person colors whether that failure was an opportunity to learn and evidence of something they tried, or whether it is evidence that they are untrustworthy, bad at their jobs or unlikely to succeed in the future.

Not everyone has the privilege to fail. Three things need to happen to turn failure into success.

1. You need resources to take a risk

Starting a business in your garage sounds modest, but only 64% of Americans have a garage or carport (American Housing Survey, 2019). And you never hear about a business starting in the carport. Some resources are needed to risk it all to start a business in your garage, and resources are needed for the garage, too. Even outside of entrepreneurship, there are some who are able to take risks in their careers those who are less financially stable would not want to take.


2. You need support to recover from failure


When you fail, how will that failure be received by others?

Our research shows that 35% of U.S. employees do not feel supported when they make mistakes. Executives and people managers feel more supported when they make mistakes than do lower-level employees. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree report getting more support than those with less education. Inclusive leadership can drastically improve this outcome – 88% of those with inclusive leaders said they feel supported when they make a mistake.


3. You need leaders who advocate for you


You’ve recovered and are onto your next idea or job opportunity. Will anyone support you? More than one in four U.S. employees don’t believe there are leaders in their organization who would advocate for them. This increases to 45% of those who don’t have an inclusive leader.


Are we allowing everyone to make mistakes?

If risk-taking is a key priority for your organization, consider whether people feel safe taking that risk.

Do they have the resources they need? This may not be a garage, but instead be time away from other priorities or leniency with financial goals.

Do they get support if a calculated risk does not pan out? For failure to lead to success, the mistakes need to be identified early and met with support, not retaliation or punishment.

How are previous mistakes viewed by leadership? Ensure new opportunities are evaluated without bias. One person’s failure may be seen as another’s willingness to try something new. This can become subjective, so ensure you are evaluating with fair, preset criteria.


Failure can indeed lead to success when it is viewed as taking smart risks. It can lead to losses and lack of future opportunity when not met with support and advocacy. If you aren’t sure which approach is common at your organization, ask your employees.


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Amy Stern

Amy Stern

Managing Director, Research and Strategy

Amy Stern is Managing Director of Research & Strategy at BI WORLDWIDE. Her research has resulted in peer-reviewed publications, invited lectures, research awards, and valued insights for many clients. Amy’s deep understanding of employee experimental psychology allows her to combine critical thinking and creativity to create custom research that gets to the heart of diversity, equity, and inclusion at work. She advises companies on how to create an equitable and inclusive workforce where all employees can thrive.