It's Always Hard to Decide When to Let Someone Fail

It wasn’t that the phrase had never been used before.  In fact it is used often.  But this time is struck me differently, clawing its way into my mind, and refusing to leave until I thoughtfully considered the implications of its meaning.  The phrase?

It’s always hard to decide when to let someone fail.

An advisor to student organizations used it while describing his work with student leaders.  But it has been said many times before: by parents in reference to their children, by managers discussing the people they supervise, and by mentors commenting on their protégés.

But look at the language.  Look at who has ownership over the right to fail.  It is not the person engaging in the activity, but the “higher up,” the authority figure, the power player.

And that is just plain wrong.

I don’t fault those who hold this belief.  Much of the world uses language and practices to encourage exactly this type of thinking. But I do fault the assumptions and mental models behind it.

Who is anyone else to determine when a person have a right to fail?  What criteria could they possibly apply to make their decision ? The right to fail rests with the individual.  She owns it … its possibilities …  its potential problems … its consequences.

The meaning behind this oft-used but ill-meaning phrase is really this: We see ourselves in a position of presumed power. As such, we decide when the actions of others are going to have a significant enough impact on the organization, the family, etc. to cause us to intervene.  When the consequences are not great in our eyes, we can sit back and do nothing, allowing the person to make mistakes and learn from them.

But what about the consequences for the individual making the decision? What are the consequences of stealing that individual’s right to make his or her own decisions and to learn how to manage the consequences of them? What about that person’s self-esteem and the impact on it when we ride in on our white horse and save the day?

Would it not be better if we were a caring and thoughtful confidante along each step of the individual’s decision-making journey?  We need to ensure others have a clear understanding of how their decisions affect the group, the values we hope will guide their decisions, the trust and confidence we have in their decision-making, our availability to coach and counsel them when the going gets rough, and the consequences of failing to make a decision or making the “wrong decision.”  And then we need to get out of their way.

It’s always hard to decide when to let someone else fail.   It should be hard to decide because the right to make such a decision is not one we possess.  We can’t rightfully claim that which is not rightfully ours.

The next time we find ourselves about to utter those words or think such a thought, let us reflect on what we are about to do: steal away the opportunity for another human being to grow, to develop, to act, to decide, to learn.

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