How different cultures deal with failure and learn from it, is in many cases the key to success. Yet understanding failure, and the way it is perceived, is important when working in a cross-cultural environment. Different cultures have completely opposing attitudes to failure.
Plenty of famous entrepreneurs and public figures have found success because they have learned to stare failure in the face. Steve Jobs. Richard Branson. Walt Disney. J.K. Rowling, whose original Harry Potter manuscript was rejected 12 times. Henry Ford, who faced one disaster after another before the Ford Motor Company took off, famously said:
“Failure is simply an opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
In the USA, where risk and entrepreneurship are admired, and winners reap big financial rewards, failure is seen as a mere bump in the road to success. It is common in job interviews to invite candidates to talk about their experiences with failure and how they overcame it.
Yet in Japan, failing in a business venture can be fatal to a person’s professional reputation. An executive involved in a failed company may struggle to find another job. The chief executive of a failed enterprise is expected to apologize personally for letting people down. It would therefore be unwise to share stories of your business failures with Japanese colleagues in the hope of bonding over shared experiences. The most likely outcome would be a loss of face for you and great embarrassment for your colleagues.
Attitudes to failure in business are often related to a culture’s attitude to risk. In highly risk-averse cultures, for example, Germany, where the social fabric is held together by a series of rules and laws, and long-term security is prized, failure is seen as weak and inefficient. Great effort is taken to minimise its likelihood. According to a report by ARN, even Australians are regarded as conservative, both in business and as consumers. Combined this with a negative attitude to failure and you have a culture where entrepreneurship is not flourishing as it might.
Islamic cultures, very broadly speaking, are likely to be less tolerant of failure. In a world where personal contacts and relationships take precedence over business with strangers; where maintaining harmony and face are crucial; and where strict hierarchy, risk aversion and fatalism are commonplace, there is little room for experimentation and failure. The more conservative the culture, the less tolerance for failure. Saudi Arabia, for example, is not known for its entrepreneurial spirit.
But there are some surprises around the world. According to Arabian Business, the multicultural United Arab Emirates is a society increasingly open to encouraging entrepreneurs – which might suggest that attitudes towards failure are mellowing.
India, too, is fast emerging as a country of opportunists and entrepreneurs. India’s education system does not necessarily foster the lateral thinking, imagination and self-motivation required to be an entrepreneur and failure, historically, is seen as a disaster, even affecting an individual’s family name and marriage prospects. But according to Reuters, India’s technology boom, fuelled by the availability of venture capital cash and a ‘Silicon Valley’ mentality, is dramatically changing attitudes to failure.
Ironically, it was in a Latin culture, where there is little tolerance for failure and the loss of face it brings, that a global movement was launched in 2012. In Mexico, where 75% of start-ups close after two years, a group of friends, all of whom had experienced failure in business at some point, founded F.U.N., a series of events that has now spread to 100 cities worldwide, at which business people stand up and talk frankly about their failures, followed by a Q&A. Worldwide, 10,000 people attend these events every month.
F.U.N.’s offshoot, The Failure Institute, is a research arm that aims to break the taboos of business failure and investigate exactly why businesses fail in the first place.
“Perhaps part of the reason why an entrepreneur doesn’t achieve definitive success has to do with not learning how to overcome failure,” its downloadable book concludes “The way that societies integrate and face failure is one of the distinguishing factors between successful entrepreneurial cultures – and those that only try to be successful.”