Fostering a Fearless Culture by Reframing Our Response to Failure

In a previous post, I shared what it means to cultivate a “fail-fast” organisational culture, what typically happens when people experience failure, and how essential it is to detach people’s fears about failure and enable them to normalize their concerns and anxieties. I described that when people fail, they unconsciously sink into a series of reactive responses that engage them neurologically and emotionally resulting in a range of irrational, cognitive (thinking and feeling) distortions, which usually involves disappointment, confusion and shame.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, offers a courageous reframe on failure:

“If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we can make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. This is why I make appoint of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar, because they teach us something important: being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them. My goal is not to drive out fear completely, because fear is inevitable in high-stakes situations. What I want is to loosen its grip on us. While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.”

Cultivate teachable and coachable moments

When an individual or team experiences failure, a useful strategy is to support and encourage them to hit their “pause button”—to take a moment, retreat and reflect, and become aware of their unconscious auto-response. This allows people the time and space to take a “reflective stance” and connect with their range of thoughts and feelings, and to the results they caused.

Illustrated in the diagram below, working this way creates a safe space allowing an individual to connect with and acknowledge their pain and fear of shame and being shamed. It also allows the creation of a new space where someone has both the permission and trust to become self-compassionate, inquisitive, and curious about why or how the failure happened and what can be learned.

fail fast model


Choose a Constructive response to failure

Hitting the “pause button” and creating the safe space for immersing mindfully into what happened creates an opportunity to dwell on what might become a teachable and coachable moment. This involves using the specific question patterning outlined in the diagram above to generate a new, more resourceful operating pattern to apply the next time a failure occurs.

This allows the individual or team to take responsibility by acknowledging that their position of power and control is within themselves. That when they step into it and own it, they can continually learn from mistakes and failures, and coach and teach their people to do so as well.

This way of working allows people to apply mistakes and failures as teachable and coachable moments so that people become less risk-averse, defensive and avoidant. It can be used to empower people to become authentically creative, compassionate, courageous, decisive, smart risk-takers and business game-changers.

Drive out fear and normalize failure

Normalizing and using failure as pivot points unleashes peoples’ potential for innovation and enables organisations to build the critical, cultural change foundations necessary to adapt, grow, and out-innovate their competitors.

Cultivate trust in the workplace

One of the key points that Catmull makes is about creating an environment where trust becomes an inherent part of the workplace culture. He says,

“Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do, you trust they will act to help solve it.”

This requires a constructive organisation culture and leadership style that embraces patience and acceptance, transparency and authenticity, and consistency and compassion.

It requires leaders to role model a way of working that assumes people come from the best intention and want to see, respond to, and solve problems creatively.

Survive, thrive, and onward

Organisations who courageously confront the challenges of the 21st century will survive, thrive, flow and flourish by developing an organisational culture that interprets and applies failure as a manifestation of exploration and learning, rather than trying to avoid or out-think it!


About the Author

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Janet Sernack

Janet Sernack is the Founder & CEO of ImagineNation™ a global network of future-thinking leaders in innovation consulting, culture, leadership & team development, and coaching for individuals, teams & organisations. She applies her 30 years of global experience in consulting, culture development, change management, leadership & top team development, innovation education, and coaching interventions to her current work in innovation & entrepreneurship. She leads the way in helping businesses adapt & grow through disruption, by challenging businesses to be, think & act differently to co-create a world where people matter & innovation is the norm. Contact Janet at to find out how ImagineNation can partner with you to learn, adapt, collaborate and grow your organization in the digital age.