Leaders must 'walk the talk,' manage differently, and communicate

This week, we've explored how healthcare services giant Cardinal Health is overcoming the stigma of failure to move its business and employees toward an atmosphere more conducive to risk-taking.

This week, we've explored how healthcare services giant Cardinal Health is overcoming the stigma of failure to move its business and employees toward an atmosphere more conducive to risk-taking.  

Having already shared lessons about defining where failure is appropriate; the move to favor “beta” approaches to initiatives and innovation; and the idea to elevate failures that have transformed into successes, today's final reflection highlights the last components of the attitude shift that has spurred innovation and strengthened Cardinal Health's business.  

Leaders must “walk the talk,” manage differently, and communicate. As with any culture change initiative, management must model the desired behavior first. The more honest and upfront leaders are about their own failures, the more credible they will be to employees.  

Beyond sharing their own failures, managers need to interact with employees in new ways. A decade ago, authors Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes described a “failure-tolerant leader” as someone who collaborates with employees rather than controls them, who listens more than talks, who analyzes more than praises, and who brings empathy, engagement, and curiosity to every encounter with employees.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson argues that managers need to recognize that different types of failure require different responses. Failures in routine work and failures due to “deliberate deviance” clearly need accountability, while “intelligent failures” in unpredictable and complex areas also need accountability, but not blame. 

Writing in April's Harvard Business Review, Edmondson outlined six steps for leaders to create a “psychologically safe environment.” They are: explaining the types of failures that are to be expected, embracing those who share bad news, acknowledging your own shortcomings, inviting participation, setting boundaries and holding people accountable, and designing “successful” failures (a pilot project that is structured to maximize learning).

None of these efforts will go far unless they are communicated clearly and consistently throughout the organization. Here, a company's communication function should play a leading role. After all, communication professionals don't just help companies communicate; they shape how they act by influencing how employees talk to each other, what they value, and how the corporate culture develops.

Finally, as you change attitudes about failure, expect to fail along the way. The stigma associated with failure runs deep in each of us as individuals. It cannot be changed overnight, so give yourself some margin for error. We recognize that as we try to build a more risk-taking culture, we will stumble periodically in the effort itself. How we handle those failures, in the eyes of our employees, will make or break our effort.

As I began exploring the topic of failure, I heard Michael J. Fox being interviewed on National Public Radio promoting his book of life lessons called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future. He said something that stuck with me: “There's always failure, and there's always disappointment, and there's always loss. But the secret is learning from the loss and realizing that none of those holes are vacuums. They'll be filled up, and if you try to fill them up with ego, or [some] kind of immediate gratification, you're going to short shrift yourself, and you're going to lose the opportunity to find out what happens when you give the loss space to fill itself and let life kind of come in and fill the cracks.”

His observation reminded me that in life, as in business, it is how we respond to failure that defines both who we are and what we will become.

Shelley Bird is EVP for public affairs at Cardinal Health.

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