If You Want Your Team to Take the Initiative, Give Them the Space to Struggle

business meeting and teamwork


Healthy Habits for High Performing Leaders

Just as a butterfly struggles to emerge from its cocoon or as babies fall when they take their first steps, these struggles strengthen and enable future success. The struggle strengthens the butterfly’s wings, allowing it to fly. Babies must learn balance and muscle control and must have the drive to want to walk. It’s part of the learning process and strengthens their ability to succeed.

To be at their strongest, one needs to struggle. Facing challenges, struggling, and sometimes failing allows for growth and advancement. As leaders, we often need to remember that people need time to develop rather than expecting them to be fully capable from the start. We sometimes fail to allow our team members to struggle through tasks and assignments, a crucial part of their development. Previous articles discussed seven strategies leaders can use to delegate effectively. Once these strategies are in place, leaders must allow employees to experience failure and learn from it.

Why Don’t Leaders Allow for Failure

In many organizations, leaders hesitate to allow for failure due to fears of negative outcomes, pressure for immediate results, and a misunderstanding of failure’s value. This reluctance is often driven by a desire for control, trust issues, and organizational cultures stigmatizing mistakes. Leaders frequently feel they are the only ones who can do the job well and worry that their team members cannot perform perfectly while still developing. This desire to protect outcomes and maintain high standards can hinder growth. 

Empathy also plays a role; watching a team member struggle can be as difficult as watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon or a child take their first steps. However, stepping in to fix problems isn’t always the best approach. It’s crucial to resist the urge to become a rescuer and instead allow team members to learn and grow through their challenges.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
– Helen Keller

What Can Leaders Do to Give That Room to Take the Initiative?

Fostering an environment where failure is seen as an integral part of growth can lead to significant advancements in team development and innovation. Leaders can transform failures into valuable learning opportunities by promoting a growth mindset, encouraging experimentation, and providing support. This shift enhances individual capabilities and strengthens the organization’s resilience and adaptability.

Theoretically, that all sounds great. Practically, it’s not so easy. Here are several methods for giving team members the space to grow:

  1. Self-awareness: Sometimes, you may need to step back and ask yourself, “What is preventing me from allowing others to take the initiative?”. Recognizing how your mindset may hinder your team’s growth and leadership development is important. By stepping back and allowing others to take the initiative, you create opportunities for learning and empowerment. This fosters a more capable and independent team and will enable you to focus on higher-level strategic tasks.
  2. Avoid taking on the role of rescuer. Similar to the point above, while stepping in and preventing mistakes may feel kinder, it’s often more beneficial to let individuals learn through their own experiences, except in catastrophic situations. Managing your instinct to rescue allows team members to develop their problem-solving skills and resilience, ultimately leading to greater growth and independence.
  3. Identify your team members’ growth goals and assign developmental opportunities that align with them. You need open conversations about where employees envision their careers and what interests them. For instance, they aim to improve their presentation skills or become more proficient in using data to make decisions. Once you’ve identified their goals, align them with the business objectives.
  4. Understand the level of challenge each team member can tolerate, recognizing there’s a difference between someone advancing to the next level and someone fresh out of school. Consider their experience and personality style when assigning tasks. Tools like Everything DISC® can help determine their style, allowing you to tailor your approach to each individual. This personalized strategy ensures that each team member is supported and challenged appropriately, fostering growth and maximizing their potential.
  5. Distinguish between glass balls (higher risk) and rubber balls (lower risk)—glass balls break while rubber balls bounce. When juggling, avoid starting with knives and fire. Begin with lower-risk projects (rubber balls) to reduce anxiety, as the consequences of mistakes will be lower. If you assign more critical tasks (glass balls), ensure some cushioning to mitigate potential damage and support team members in their efforts. 
  6. Failing is a valuable way to learn, but it’s important to consider the cost of failure. While small mistakes with minimal consequences, such as a $10 material cost, can be excellent learning opportunities, high-stakes environments require more caution. For instance, you wouldn’t want a doctor to learn through failure. Balancing the risk and impact of failure with the opportunity for growth is key to effective learning and development.
  7. Adapt a coaching approach to move from being a rescuer to being a guide. Ask questions and help your team think through decisions while allowing them to make the final choices. Cultivate curiosity and support their problem-solving process. Instead of providing answers, encourage them to explore solutions by responding to their questions. This approach fosters independence and critical thinking, empowering individuals to develop their decision-making skills and confidence.

“Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.
– Joseph Campbell

The Next Steps are Baby Steps with a Bit of Falling Down

Just as babies learn to walk by falling and butterflies strengthen their wings by struggling to emerge from the cocoon, embracing challenges and struggles is essential for growth and development. By fostering an environment that encourages experimentation and learning from failure, leaders can empower their teams to reach their full potential.

For more guidance on creating a growth-oriented culture or to conduct an Everything DISC® Personality Assessment for your team members, contact us.

1. Kalil, C. (2016). SELF-DISCOVERY: Inside-Out Approach to Life and Work. Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, 32(4), 9-19.

Share With Your Colleagues
POSTED ON: Team Development