When is it OK to let people fail?

Well, it has been a really really really long time since I posted here, so, life, you know? Every day, my calendar tells me to post to my blog, but for over a year, not so much.

But! I’m trying to get back into the swing of things. So this here is actually a slightly edited article I wrote for LinkedIn, which I’ve been working to become more active on, but a few trusted SCA friends suggested that it had relevance here as well, so here it is!

As a manager of people, and a project manager, and someone who has been in leadership positions in the SCA, I try to be a good leader in general.  But I frequently feel that I am put in a position where I have to decide to either step in to prevent or fix a problem, or allow that problem to occur, and then deal with the fallout of that problem. And I think that this is something that happens to a lot of people.

Often, the decision I made was affected by how much work it would be for – me – to fix it.

Here’s the thing though: as a parent, we’re often – told – to let children try something and fail at it. Children succeed more, and become more resilient when they’re told that they worked hard at something, even if they had to try it a few times, rather than being told that they’re smart. And we see memes and slogans extolling the worth of failure: “the Expert has failed more times than the Beginner has tried”, for example.

So why do we step in to rescue adults from mistakes? I think there are two reasons.

The first is purely self-preservation. When you manage someone, you’re accountable for the work they’ve done, so when they fail, you’ve failed too. And that’s the easy answer, right? Your failure is my failure.

But the second answer isn’t so easy. The second answer is that it’s HARD to see someone fail, even if the collateral damage doesn’t include you. Because, weirdly, in this context, adults are less resilient – or at least perceived to be less resilient – than children. I don’t know why that is. All I know is that I’m driven to try to fix things before they get out of control.

But are we doing our coworkers or co-volunteers a disservice by preventing their mistakes from having consequences? Does it hurt them more than it helps for someone to swoop in and make things work, sometimes without them even realizing?

I’m starting to think maybe it does. Because when you fail to let someone learn from their mistakes things happen.

  • First, they may get praise for doing such a good job with their task, even though you’re the one who actually made it happen. That reinforces the confidence they have in themselves — which will surely lead them down the road to even more failure, because maybe you won’t be there next time.
  • Secondly, you, and anyone who helped you prevent or fix the mistake will likely become frustrated as time goes by, because preventing one mistake becomes preventing many mistakes. That’s not great for a team dynamic, and will turn into resentment.
  • Thirdly — but probably most importantly, the person you’re saving doesn’t -learn- anything from what’s happened. If they don’t learn, they don’t grow, and if they don’t grow, there’s no improvement. Everyone makes mistakes. If we can’t see the mistakes we make, we stagnate.
  • And, as was stated by a friend of mine, if you’re always there to step in and fix something, people might think that you’re becoming presumptuous.  “Only I can fix it,” they think you say.  That kind of behavior certainly doesn’t lend itself to fostering leadership in others.

So think about the moments when you stepped in to fix a problem, and consider if letting that problem actually happen might have made things better, and put them in the comments!  I know that there have been moments when someone stepped in for me, and it probably would have been better had they not come to the rescue.