Why Making Your Employees Fail Makes You A Better Manager

managers resource handbook

Call it tough love.  Maybe it’s a form of parenting.  We as managers are responsible for our team’s success and getting a job done.  Further, we are charged with the growth and development of our employees.  What does this mean?

Developing employees is not just sending them to a training class, or giving them feedback once a year during their performance review.  Developing employees is an ongoing activity during which managers must provide special projects and mentor employees on how to overcome challenges.  Managers must also provide coaching, particularly to younger employees, on the importance of professionalism. Mentoring and stretch assignments allow employees to improve and effectively prepare for future roles.

I recently read an article The Derailment of Fast-Track Managers by Barbara E. Kovach, first published in Organizational Dynamics magazine in 1986.  Kovach discusses how many first-time managers struggle making the transition into management.  The cause, she points out, is because those skills that made them successful as individuals – resourcefulness, hard work and self-motivation – actually make them weaker as managers.  This is because people in positions of management must obtain results through their teams and cannot be the sole cause of success.

The article reminded me of a former employee of mine.  This employee came out of a leadership program that gave a select group of youthful, highly talented people within the corporation great exposure to the business.  These individuals were fast-track employees, and deservedly so.  Many graduates I saw from the program were very bright and had tremendous leadership potential.

This one employee, we’ll call him David, fit the mold.  He was extremely energetic, passionate and intelligent.  He learned extremely fast and no doubt had a bright career ahead.  The problem, though, was that during the program, his executive sponsor continuously gave David special help.  The sponsor routinely put David at the top of every list and built up David’s self-confidence to the point where David was unable to make a mistake (or so he thought).

When David graduated from the program, he took a job within my team.  He did well overall, but as Kovach would describe, his success was based on his own energy and drive.  Despite David’s success, his inexperience was the cause of numerous problems and errors that ended up being detrimental to the business.  David refused to acknowledge his mistakes.

The sponsor continued to provide support for David, coaching him on how to excel and move up the corporate ladder.  David developed a sense of entitlement.  As his manager, it grew increasingly difficult for me to manage someone who could never be wrong.  David was never allowed to make a mistake – his sponsor was always there providing a safety net.

After two years on my team, David took his first managerial position, thanks to his sponsor. When he left, my advice to David was that his biggest weakness was he didn’t know how to fail.  He did not know what that felt like or how to learn from it.  Further, I told him he was moving into a position where he would have make decisions, but had little experience to understanding the consequences of such decisions.  Four years later, David remains in that position, but has had little success.

Kovach’s article reminded me of managing David.  As talented and bright as he was, he was ill-equipped to step into a managerial role so soon.  As managers, we need to select opportunities for employees that will stretch them and challenge them.  Such assignments require a certain level of calculated risk on behalf of the manager as the employee may fail at the assignment.  The experience of failure, though, is not futile.  Failure teaches employees how to better make their own decisions and how to weigh various risks and decisions. Failure helps them become more effective at their jobs.

As the old adage goes, a chain is only as strong as the weakest link.  When it comes to managing an organization, the stronger we make our people, the individual links, the stronger our team becomes.   By enabling your employees to fail under close watch, you will create a stronger, more capable organization.

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