Habits are incredibly powerful, and omnipresent in our lives. Some habits we know and actively try and break (smoking or biting our nails), while others are so innate that we don’t even realize they are habits (driving the exact same route to work every day, tapping your pencil on the desk when you are nervous, etc.) – they have just become part of who we are.
Habits also govern the workplace, whether it is meeting at the water cooler at the same time every afternoon to discuss what happened on SportsCenter the previous night or the specific way employees interact with each other in meetings and on phone calls. The book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” is a fascinating dive into what habits are and how they shape us as individuals, employees and members of society. Written by Charles Duhigg, the book offers many interesting insights into what allows us to develop and/or alter our habits, both at an individual level and an organizational level.
While there are many vignettes throughout the story that are powerful, there is one habit that Duhigg discusses that could transform the way certain people and businesses do work: the habit of rewarding failure.
According to Duhigg, at NASA, when unmanned rockets would explode on takeoff, department heads at NASA would applaud. Yes, you read that correctly. Million-dollar missions are failing, and department heads are clapping! That seems insane, right? Duhigg goes on to say that the executives would applaud so that everyone in the department would know that though they had tried and failed, they had tried nonetheless, and this practice eventually evolved into an organizational habit. By instilling in their departments the habit of applauding when they failed, NASA leaders made sure they were incentivizing those who had tried. They realized no great success would every come if their scientists continued to play it safe, so they made sure to create a habit that rewarded risk (even when the risk taken didn’t work out).
This example, though confined to the scientists at NASA, has many implications in the modern day workplace. How many sales departments celebrate when someone fails to make a sale? How many marketing departments clap someone on the back when a marketing campaign fails to hit its target revenue? Many industries, especially sports and entertainment, have failure built into their structures, because you are going to fail many more times than you succeed. But how many sales or marketing departments have habits of rewarding failure? Rewarding failure or promoting those who go above and beyond in trying to make the sale could have huge upside in making the sales reps that much more excited to make that last call of the day, or eager to get on the phone first thing in the morning if those reps know that no matter what, they are in an organization that encourages those who “try.”
To be clear: Duhigg isn’t necessarily stating that making a habit of rewarding failure is something that works for every company, or will work in every situation. And yes, a sales rep who fails ALL the time just might not be cut out to be a sales rep, and shouldn’t be rewarded for continually falling short. However, there are many companies out there at which failure is something that is looked down upon, which shouldn’t necessarily always be the case. For many companies to be successful, they need to create structures and habits that reward those who try, fail, assess what went wrong, and then continue to try until they get it right. In the end, that habit of persistence in the face of failure will lead to the ultimate success.
Like what you see from blog author/former Turnkey employee/current Houston Dynamo Partnership Activation Manager Bill Zachry? Follow him on Twitter at @bbzachry.