A close-up image shows a businessman with a beard as he looks at this desktop computer monitor and contemplates something.
Entrepreneurs are leveraging the concept of "failing up" to analyze and acknowledge where and how mistakes were made and the lessons they can learn from the experience. — Getty Images/Cecilie Arcurs

Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley have popularized the idea of failing fast, encouraging innovation by trying, failing, and trying again. The concept of “failing up,” however, is slightly different. Failing up has historically had a negative connotation; however, more and more business owners are embracing this idea and making it work for their next ventures.

What is failing upward?

Traditionally, failing upward is the idea that someone succeeds in their career despite being mediocre at their job. A subpar employee may get a promotion, pay raise, or recognition at work that isn’t necessarily earned. There are dozens of reasons for this dynamic, and it’s not always easy to pinpoint when someone is consistently failing upward.

“The modern workplace isn’t a meritocracy, which is why plenty of people get promoted or win awards while the hard work of their colleagues goes unrecognized,” wrote Lifehacker.

“Sometimes, the reasons are born of pure nepotism, like a boss promoting a lackluster worker only because they share the same alma mater. Other times, a shared trait, belief system, or identity between a manager and worker informs the reasoning behind an undeserved promotion — a phenomenon that sociologists call ‘culture matching.’”

Failing upward is largely subjective, and it usually happens without the beneficiary realizing they’re being rewarded for a mediocre work product.

Consider a new framing around failure: If we learn from mistakes, we find magic in that learning, and can build a reputation that is memorable and positive.

Lida Citroën

How entrepreneurs are redefining ‘failing upward’

Today’s innovators are reclaiming the notion of failing upward to spin it into a more positive concept. Leslie Odom Jr., a former actor and author of the book “Failing Up: How To Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Give Up,” is among the many experts who see failing up as part of the learning process.

“If we don't try, we'll never succeed. If we fail, we can learn from it. But if we don't try, we'll never move forward,” wrote Lida Citroën, reputation management and personal branding expert in Entrepreneur.

Notably, today’s school of thought around failing up is not about hiding mistakes or putting a spin on them. It’s more about realizing that there’s a learning opportunity when things don’t work out as planned.

“Consider a new framing around failure: If we learn from mistakes, we find magic in that learning, and can build a reputation that is memorable and positive,” said Citroën.

How to leverage failing up

Failing up has different meanings to different people — and, as such, there are a few ways to make this concept work for your business venture.

In the entrepreneurial sense, failing up requires embracing a growth mindset. That perspective means being open to learning and developing new skills, especially in the face of failure. People with a growth mindset embrace challenges, view mistakes as opportunities for learning, and persist in the face of setbacks. They believe that their intelligence and talents can be cultivated with effort, and they are motivated to improve themselves

[Read more: Adopting the Right Mindset for Career Success]

In the traditional sense, failing upward can also be a benefit — if you apply the learnings responsibly. Failing upward is not an excuse for doing the bare minimum. See it as an opportunity to reexamine who gets promoted, how hard work is recognized, and to challenge what inherent biases may exist in your team structure. What metrics are you using to ensure fair pay and equal opportunity at your small business?

Employees who might have imposter syndrome can also try some of the tactics that help some people rise to the top. Learning how to promote the hard work you do, network with those around you, and advocate for your advancement are good skills to have. Just make sure you’re being honest about your capabilities and work product to ensure you don’t fail upward for the wrong reasons.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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