How to Take the Sting Out of Failure – and Dramatically Improve Team Performance

What is the secret of a high performing team in accounting? Is it bringing together CPAs who have deep technical expertise? Do you need a wide diversity of personalities or strengths? Or maybe just having a strong leader who controls the group carefully with a skilled hand?

Over two years, Google conducted a massive study on team performance to answer the question – what creates high performing teams?

Google’s research uncovered five key dynamics that effective teams had, and the concept of psychological safety was by far the most important of these. Psychological safety was first introduced by organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard who defined it as, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

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Failure is Not an Option.

Part of the feeling of “safe for interpersonal risk taking” is knowing that sometimes a risk isn’t going to produce the result you want. And it in fact may be a spectacular failure. The perspective I see with some accounting teams, and individuals themselves, is the mentality of “failure is not an option.” What happens when this is an overriding perspective?

A few challenges:

  1. Team members are afraid to share their mistakes. Have you ever found out after-the-fact that someone swept an issue under the rug hoping you wouldn’t find out? How’d that go? While no professional is excited to admit they messed up, it’s a different story when they’re fearful of repercussions that they choose to hide a mistake instead of stepping up to correct an issue before it gets worse. Before the financials are submitted to the bank, before the return is filed. What if instead the team environment encouraged people to share when they made a mistake?

  2. We reduce true innovation. In the accounting profession we want and need innovation. It’s no secret that technology has already, and continues to change the compliance-work landscape. To stay relevant to clients and stakeholders, accounting professionals need to showcase our deeper value. But this requires us to experiment with the unknown: try out a new workflow tool, invest in developing an advisory niche, hire the person who has a non-traditional background. It won’t always work out, but if we don’t embrace and try new approaches to our traditional practices there are plenty of other people and organizations (accounting and otherwise) who will happily overtake us.

But What if Failure Was an Option?

The outcomes of the teams Google researched were pretty impressive, they found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety were

  • less likely to leave the company

  • more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates

  • brought in more revenue

  • rated as effective twice as often by executives.

The bottom line is that high levels of psychological safety in teams produces high performance.

To be abundantly clear, creating a freedom-to-fail environment is not intended to encourage mistakes or errors. It’s meant to separate those who “made a mistake” from those who were careless. It’s meant to encourage failure from the process of exploring innovative ideas, but not failure from intentionally or neglectfully avoiding one’s professional duties.

Creating a Freedom to Fail Environment

If psychological safety – or the freedom to fail – is so valuable in teams, then how can leaders create more of it at work? Amy Edmondson gives the eight ideas to leaders as a tool kit, here are my favorite three and how they apply to accounting teams:

  1. Destigmatize Failure

    Accounting Application: When someone fails, instead of blaming - offer a constructive framework by looking to the future with them, offering appropriate help and brainstorming possible next steps. E.g. learn from the mistake of sending out a complex return before it’s gone through a second partner review, as opposed to blaming or punishing the individual who didn’t understand the process. It can be tough to root out long-standing blame undercurrents, but being aware of them and having open conversations about the environment you’re striving for is a great starting point.  

  2. Demonstrate Situational Humility

    Accounting Application: You may think that as a leader in your department, or on your engagement team, you need to appear flawless at all times. Not so! Practicing humility and openly acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and may not be perfect (gasp!) will lower the tension on your team and encourage others to step up with their best work.

    Try sharing a story from your past about the time you naïvely sent a company-wide email asking people to download a software update that you felt would really benefit any auditor and probably the whole firm, and got a swift “never do that again” message from the IT department (that was me). Your team members just might feel more connected and willing to discussing this whole failure concept knowing they’re not alone in their humanness and occasional fallibility.  

  3. Practice Inquiry

    Accounting Application: When something goes wrong, ask your team for their thoughts and really listen to their answers. Did someone turn in a financial report that seemed to be rife with errors? Instead of telling them all the ways they did it wrong (you know you’ve worked for someone who’s done this at some point in your career!), start by asking them to walk you through what they did. Reflect back what you hear and don’t be afraid to probe deeply to fully flesh out their point of view. You’ll be surprised at what you learn from this process, and how it helps your relationships AND your results.

As accounting professionals, we’ve been trained to find errors and root them out with efficiency and a sense of professional glee. Learning the skills of psychological safety may not be our native language, but learning it is the key to high performing teams. Remember, if you try and fail – that’s ok – just learn from your mistakes.

Tennessee CPA Journal Sept/Oct 2019 article: http://onlinedigeditions.com/publication/?i=620903&ver=html5&p=20

References:

The New York Times: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

Edmondson, Amy C. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018.