“We have an issue. I’ll call him in and figure out why he failed to …” said the supervisor who walked into my office that sunny day.
“Stop,” I said, “find out the facts, let me see the outcome of the mistake, and let me see if I own it before you say he failed.”
A puzzled look from the supervisor ensued. The details of the individual and the failure are inconsequential. Tying failure immediately to an individual seemed too easy a conclusion for me. What mattered was the process of analyzing failure in hopes of realizing unit success. After all, in the military we are surrounded by amazing patriots every day who strive to make a positive difference.
A rush to judge the professional who experienced failure before engaging in a rational evaluation of all the details is detrimental to building a team who is eager to serve, learn, fix, and better execute our Air Force’s diverse missions. In over 22 years of service, I have come to firmly believe nearly 97 percent of all events we deem as failures by a person or a team are attributed to one of three reasons; and supervisors and leaders own them. Let’s evaluate:
First, did you properly set out expectations and provide appropriate and robust feedback?
It is the foundation for everything. Where those on your team finish is rooted in where you ask them to start. If you have not set out clear priorities, expectations, limitations and goals, take caution criticizing the paths they take. Course corrections ingrained with open and consistent communication are paramount to setting up professionals and their teams for success. If you are in charge, listen intently, ponder more and talk less. Seek feedback, provide it and make your expectations concise.
Second, did you properly train; but more importantly, educate the professionals with whom you serve?
The demands of training for the multitude of missions Airmen are asked to accomplish often drive us to one-on-one computer-based training (CBT) modules and short slideshows. That is training and it is an important step, but it is not education. The bedrock of our military success is comprised of a professionally educated, not just trained, force. Only through consistent supervisor follow up, experience-driven opportunities, team discussions, leadership engagement, and an open and collaborative review of failures are professionals truly educated. Click, click, click, print certificate doesn’t work. Education is a multifaceted process. If you are provided with only a CBT to train you, then supervisors and leaders own any failures as a result.
Third, did you take time to see if the procedures by which your teams operate are broken, inefficient or ineffective?
Did the process fail the professional? In the military, we operate in one of the most dynamic environments on the planet. For those in the deployed environment, challenge what you see and how you operate if it is not leading to successful mission execution. When we apply an organize, train and equip “in-garrison” mentality to the deployed environment we run the risk of experiencing mission-impacting negative consequences. We risk failing. Processes must be challenged and fixed as we are not organized and resourced like the bases we left. Ensuring your team adheres to disciplined execution of their tasks starts with a sound process supervisors and leaders own. Repeat failures usually mean the process is broken and Airmen are being set up to fail. Unless a process is bounded by the laws of physics or chemistry, fix it if it’s leading to repeated failure.
Before rushing to judgment, as a supervisor and a leader, regardless of rank, apply some critical thinking and ask yourself those three basic questions when analyzing failure.
For the 3 percent who do not know the difference between a mistake and a crime, who willingly disregard technical order guidance and instructions, or who refuse to uphold the standards required in the profession of arms, we have ways of holding them accountable and we should to the maximum extent possible. We are all responsible for our actions. For the 97 percent, I believe supervisors and leaders owe them the flexibility to learn from mistakes, make the team stronger from those mistakes, and foster a culture which allows the discussion of those mistakes void of unnecessary repercussions to realize unit success.
If you do not encourage a systemic look at failure when it occurs, you run the risk of destroying effective chain of command communication, team cohesion, honest feedback and also the prospect of the building of effective learning organizations. Honest mistakes are part of everyone’s learning process. High performing professionals and teams are not driven by a fear of the consequences of their actions, but rather by the belief they are accomplishing something of importance with the support of their leadership.
Standards must be set and followed. Failure is rare when taken into context with the billions of actions and decisions our military professionals make daily. However, if an Airman or team fails, first ask yourself, “Do I own it? Have I looked at the big three — expectations, education and process?” Analyze failure, then watch your team realize success. If you start there, you may find the great people who have chosen to join the world’s most effective air, space and cyber force will bring forward more issues to solve and ideas for success than you can handle. But that is a risk worth taking.
By the way, the failure I first mentioned above was mine to fix. I owned it. As a supervisor and a leader, will you?
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, Defense Department or the U.S. government.