Industry Voices—Women in healthcare need to be less fearful of failure

In the book "Rising Strong," Brené Brown discusses her experience at a TEDx gathering, networking with some of the most successful people in the world.

You would expect the people in this group to talk about the amazing things they had accomplished in their careers and lives.

They didn’t.

While others may define people by their successes, it turns out that many successful people actually define themselves by their many failures—not because they are happy to have failed, but because each failure represents a moment when they have learned an important lesson and grown.

When I look back at my career in healthcare, I, too, think to the many times when I have failed. Learning from our failures allows us to succeed. Success comes from having the courage and persistence to experience repeated failure and learn from those failures so we can identify the one idea, process or ingredient that does work.

Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is simply a step in the progression to success.

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If you are anything like me, you are an overachiever because you are afraid to fail. I attribute much of my personal and professional success to this fear because it forces me to always be prepared. This fear is prevalent in women as women tend to be harder on themselves then men when it comes to failure.

Preparation is not a bad thing. It’s just not always possible. Circumstances may change, new challenges may arise or deadlines may get moved up. This challenge is compounded in healthcare, as many of the factors that impact our best-laid plans are outside of our direct control—a sudden change in a patient’s symptoms, a new regulation or law, the impact of new technology and so on. We can’t always rely on having the ability to prepare. 

More importantly, working so hard to avoid failure can cause us to lose sight of opportunities masked by the risks we are trying to avoid. This risk avoidance is a common characteristic of women in roles traditionally held by men. Research has shown that women are judged more harshly than men when they make mistakes on the job. Separate research has shown that women take fewer risks and hold themselves to higher standards when they do take a risk.

Under these circumstances, taking the safe road is often the choice female providers make.

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In society in general, and healthcare in particular, failure is taboo. Although we recognize that no human is perfect, healthcare providers are graded and therefore judged by the errors they make. In radiology, our clinical performance is assessed by the process of peer review. This traditional system is required by many hospitals, and the results are used for credentialing purposes. Unfortunately, this process assigns a repercussion to erring, thereby reinforcing the taboo of failure. Happily, this trend is starting to change, and we are beginning to see “peer learning” replace “peer review.”

It is certainly important to correct and, even better, to prevent errors, especially if they are likely to have a negative downstream effect. But this learning process can only occur in an understanding environment that fosters improvement. We need to be careful we don’t impede that natural development process by attaching a steep price to failure.

Failure is a beginning, not an ending.

If we create an environment where we are not punished for our failures but rather educated by them, we have the opportunity to grow, develop, and improve. This fundamental change is especially relevant for women in healthcare who have shied away from taking risks due to a fear of failure. Communities such as RADxx and HeforShe, as well as Twitter hashtags such as #WomenInHIT and #HealthITChicks, allow women to share their experiences and foster this accepting and learning environment. These groups can create a foundation to support and accept people’s mistakes as a part of the normal experience.

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If I could go back in time and tell one thing to my younger self, I would say, “Be less afraid. Try more things. Meet more people. Apply for a job even if you don’t think you are 100% qualified. Don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from achieving greater long-term success. Take a chance and you will be surprised at how strong you really are.”

Many people who achieve great success only reach that point after they fail over and over again. By learning from their experiences and moving forward, they teach us all an important lesson. Failure isn’t the end of the process—it’s the beginning.

Dr. Nina Kottler is vice president of clinical operations for Radiology Partners.