When Failure Happens

Don't fear failure - artistic leader

Failures, big and small, happen. Sometimes you see them coming. Sometimes you don’t. Personally, I had published an article every week for 18 months running until last week. I even published one during my honeymoon (I have a very supportive wife). It was my first miss, and it caused me to think about the nature of failure; how we, as managers, handle it when our employees let us down; and, when we fail as an employee.

Reasons vs. Excuses

The first question we ask, or are asked, when a failure occurs is why did it happen. The answer is going to be either a reason or an excuse. A reason is a factual account of the circumstances that led to the outcome (or lack thereof). It’s complete with appropriate accountability and is understandable. An excuse sounds a lot like reason, but it usually lacks personal accountability or a reasonable basis (not setting the alarm).

As a manager, I recommend you leave no room for excuses, but show a clear tolerance for logical reasons. If the failure is yours to bear, provide a good, logical reason if your manager insists on knowing. If you don’t have one, then say just that.

Watch Out for Icebergs

There are some people for whom certain types of failures are predictable. There are the chronically late, for example. Or the beloved, personable employee who invariably forgets tasks.

When you have someone like this on your team, help them see this area of weakness and plan around it. I’m a fan of being direct with something like “Jeff, you’re often 5 minutes late. I want to help you get to your meetings on time. Tell me a typical situation that leads to this happening.” What you may find is a reasonable situation that the employee just handles poorly.

There’s no point in allowing an otherwise valued employee to fail at something that your coaching can help resolve. That’s the value you bring to the table.

If you’re the one with the chronic, nagging failure, I encourage you to enlist the support of others. Ask peers or even team members to point out the failing when they see it. Doing so may create a hypersensitivity inside you that allows you to overcome the behavior and modify it yourself through time.

Perfectionism is True Failure

Create room for failure to happen. Let your team see that you understand failure is a possible outcome of their efforts. When you fail, model acceptance of responsibility and resilience. And stand firm against perfectionism. Treat it as the real enemy of your organization.

Growth is no longer possible when teams, products or processes are labeled as perfect. How could it be when the thing is already perfect? And people are messy. Some of the wildest thinkers on your team are going to fail as they test out new ideas.

As a manager, your job is to find the best way to get a job done. You should be continually reviewing existing processes and procedures for effectiveness and be willing to fail if a new way is better. You and your team will be frozen in place if you “achieve” a state of perfection.

Bouncing Back

When your team member recovers from their error, let them know that you recognize the effort. For some, this may be best done as a quiet mention (especially if the failure was embarrassing), as a matter of fact, statement (if the failure was job-threatening), or over a celebratory lunch (if the failure required an expansion of skills).

When the failure is yours, look at what you’re actually capable of doing. Then ask yourself if overcoming a limitation or obstacle fits with your long-term goals. If it does, apologize and recommit to making it happen moving forward or, at least, being more communicative about troubles along the way.

We can learn a lot from failure if we learn to appreciate its value.

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