4 Tips to Make Failing Safe for Managers


Leah Potkin, avid cyclist, Boston dweller, bleeds blue.

When you learn to ride a bike as a kid, you’re expected to fall. You have a helmet, knee pads, and likely a loving parent cheering you on and providing the support (and padding!) you need. You fall, and fall, and fall again, until ultimately you find your balance and get to feel the wind in your hair and ride off into the sunset with your friends.

It all sounds rather routine, but what’s unique here is not the falling (or failing), but rather the expectation of failure that makes falling and getting a few scrapes feel perfectly normal. Thanks to this protective bubble where failure is normalized, most of us learn to ride bikes.

Unfortunately, new managers are (usually) not provided with helmets or knee pads, and it can feel taboo to admit failure of any sorts. You’re the manager after all, so you must have it all together, right? Too often, managers leave work worried they said something wrong, mismanaged a project, or generally messed something up, with no outlet to safely admit to and discuss these thoughts.

Balancing “being the manager” and admitting failure is, of course, a tricky dance, but there are some easy steps you can take (for yourself or for your managers!) to create safe ways to talk about failure. If adhered to, these actions can help managers go through the learning curve faster, and ultimately help them and their teams build rapport, communicate more effectively, and execute more efficiently.

While the former seems logical enough, ultimately we learn by doing. These simple steps will integrate failure into your team’s learning process.


Set an Expectation for Failure

With your boss, your reports, and anyone else you work closely with. While you don’t want to go around telling everyone you’re bad at your job, you do want to set an expectation that you are learning and will probably make some mistakes along the way. If others know you’re okay talking about the mess ups, they’ll be more open to sharing feedback -- everyone wins from these shared learnings .

Find a Failure Buddy

This one’s borrowed from the medical field, where some programs encourage first year doctors to literally find a buddy with whom they can share their mistakes. Being able to admit failure in a nonjudgmental environment can relieve the pressure of feeling like you need to have it all together, and having someone to talk to allows for the important step of reflection.

Record and Share Learnings

What are mistakes for if not to learn from? Make sure your failures are not in vain, and spend the extra few minutes to write down what you learned and what you’ll do differently next time. And don’t stop there! Be sure to share this with whomever was involved, signaling to them that you are comfortable showing vulnerability. Pro tip: this helps build trust!

Share the Failure Love!

Don’t keep all the failure for yourself! Encourage others to reflect on their own mistakes and help create that safe space for them as well. Teams that fail together, stay together.


There you have it. While there might not be a supportive parent (with band-aids on hand) at work, there are a few easy steps managers can take to become more comfortable talking about and learning from failure. These mistakes are just the knee scrapes that inevitably make us more resilient, trustworthy, stronger leaders (and maybe better bikers, too!).

Happy failing :)


Catherine Malloy Cummings

20 N Upper Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL, 60606, United States