The dangerous failure-shaming culture

Why the fear to be mistaken is more damaging than many mistakes

Mário Melo
4 min readMar 24, 2014


To err or not to err

As humans, we’re all error prone. But some refuse to accept that.

You give your best at something just to find out it didn’t go as well as you planned. Is there some kind of punishment on the way?

Failure-shaming environments

Whatever your answer might be, it was at least in part created by the environments you lived so far. Were you free to fail when you were young? Do you work on a company where people get punished when they make mistakes? Are you confortable facing people you’ve let down?

A failure-shaming environment is a place where no one is allowed to fail, because if they do, they’ll suffer some kind of harsh penalty. Like being fired by your boss, hit by your parents or even left by your significant other. Pick your flavor.

You’re wrong. Shame on you.

If you’ve ever experienced this kind of environment (and chances are that you did), you know how hard you must think before taking a single step forward. Or backward. You need to think and rethink each move because if you fail there’s somtehing bad awaiting for you.

Failure-shaming consequences

Well, if you look in the face of evil evil’s gonna look right back at you, and by not being allowed to fail you might start to hate when people fail you.

That happened to me, and as I started to reverse this process I became able to perceive some consequences of this kind of culture.


We often evolve by trial and error. We accept concepts learnt by practice quicker than by theory.

Why do we fall sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up. — Alfred Pennyworth

Where I work, we’re constantly trying new things and brainstorming. No matter what comes to mind, everybody feels free to speak up anything to anyone. Failures are tolerable as long as we learn something from them, and that makes us evolve much quicker than one would expect.

If nobody had this freedom to fail, my coworkers would lose the autonomy and self-confidence to try their own ideas and we’d be stuck in 2011.


I can’t fail so I need to work on that until it’s perfect, no matter how much time it takes.

I wanna a new mistake, losing is more than hesitate. — Queens of the Stone Age

I once worked on a project that aimed to improve a certain company’s indicator to something above 90%. After 5 months, the project could improve this indicator from 10% to something above 65% if it were deployed. The responsibles didn’t want to deploy it as it was and kept looking for ways to improve that 65% to the desired 90% for 2 freaking years.

For 2 years the company had 10% on something it could’ve had 65% because nobody wanted to say Hey, I couldn’t deliver 90%, but let’s start with 65% and grow from that. Chances are that if they tried, they could have figured out how to reach more than 90% in less than 2 years.

So, if you fail fast, you’ll evolve faster.

Lies and Apathy

Everything is on fire, but nobody will step up to do anything. By the way, the firestarter was thrown away because it could make someone look guilty.

It wasn’t me — Shaggy (and 94.7% of the humanity)

It’s hard to find someone with more information about a problem than the person who first created it. If this person feels confortable enough to assume it, her/his help can be the key to fix the problem. However, if there’s no space for that a lot of important things will stay under the carpet.

I try to have retrospective meetings with my coworkers periodically. It’s healthy to have an open debate about our own flaws and to seek improvements together no matter the subject.


Fight for your right to make mistakes , give a try to your ideas without being afraid to fail and don’t be a bitch when you see someone else failing, even if that hurts you.

If you ever find yourself in a hard situation occasioned by a mistake you’ve made, take a look at You’ll find a lot of friendly people like you sharing their experiences in a very open way.

That’s it. Keep on failing. ☺



Mário Melo

An agilist addicted to new technologies that sometimes needs to take a break and beat some goombas