Failure is a source of fear and anxiety for a lot of us. We believe that a failure will cause people, workplaces, even entire communities to lose faith and trust in us. But failure is a good thing, actually, and it would do all of us a lot of good to internalize that.
Our Relationship With Failure
Whether a failure is personal, creative, romantic, or professional, we sometimes believe that it is a mark against who we are as a person. We believe that it makes us bad at our jobs, our hobbies, our relationships. We sometimes believe that it makes us a bad person.
But we all need to understand this: failure is inevitable, it will happen to us all, it will happen many times throughout our lives, it will happen even though we’re gifted, experts, or highly skilled.
Failure will happen to everyone.
The idea that failure must be avoided is wrong-headed. It prevents us from considering what comes after and how to work and coach through failure.
Basically, the idea that failure must be avoided at all costs hampers effectiveness in all parts of our lives.
How managers respond to failure can separate the good managers from the bad ones.
The Result of Scolding and Punishment
We have all worked for a manager who thought that scolding and punishment were the appropriate responses to failure. The idea behind this is that creating a negative experience for the failing worker will incentivize them from failing in the future.
The fact is, we already want to avoid failure.
Scolding and punishment (scolding is a punishment, by the way) only increase the fear and anxiety around failure, which is actually a bad thing.
I worked for a manager who had an amazing response to failure. I made a mistake in the hundreds of dollars, and she called me to her office for a talk. I was traumatized by bad managers and was certain I would lose my job. Once in her office, I started coming up with excuses, reasons, spinning out a story that cast myself in as good a light as possible. Whether I knew it at the time or not, this was not just a bid to keep my job, it was an effort to spare myself the pain of her disapproval.
She cut me off mid-sentence and said: “I don’t care. Just fix it.”
The moment I processed those words, A tremendous weight was lifted from my shoulders. I could fix it. So I did.
After that I dove into my work with a renewed vigor and excitement. I trusted my manager, and her response to my mistake made me feel empowered. The feeling of empowerment, of agency, is a core part of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation isn’t something managers can create, we can only tap it. It lives within the worker themselves.
Scolding and punishment does the opposite of this. It chisels away at our confidence and sense of agency, it reduces our willingness to take risks and work independently.
The Benefits of Failure
Something I’ve heard a lot in recent decades is that it’s okay to fail as long as you don’t repeat your mistakes.
Not only is it okay to fail, it’s good, actually. Let’s take a look at why.
- Learning – this old saw remains true. Failing is literally how we learn. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning. But it’s possibly the least valuable benefit of failure not because it isn’t valuable, but because the others are just so much more valuable.
- Growth – People mistake this for learning, but growth is actually more complicated, more important, and more long-lasting. Growth means developing skills, responses, and strategies that make you a more effective and a happier person. Working through failure helps us do that.
- Resilience – People who fail become more and more resistant to failure. I cannot say how valuable this is. You either know someone like this now or have known them in the past. An emergency happens, a big mistake is made, and these people don’t fall apart. They step in and calmly work on damage control and then a fix. Resilience is maybe my second favorite personal trait of mine. Allowing people to fail develops this trait, and helping develop this trait pays dividends in the long run.
- Risk Tolerance – People who take risks and fail and are punished are less likely to take risks in the future. On the surface this may seem like a good thing, but rewards always come with risk. Innovative strategy always involves risk. Differentiation involves risk. So if you want to develop strong talent, risk tolerance is a must.
- Confidence – Have you ever met someone who exudes confidence, not in a showy way, but in a kind of quiet calm? These people, I guarantee you, have failed. When we have a dysfunctional relationship with failure, we allow it to chip away at our confidence (or use punishment to chip away at our employees’ confidence). However, when we have a healthy relationship with failure, we work through it and become more and more confident that we can handle a similar situation in the future.
- Innovation – Anything that’s not already part of common wisdom comes with risk, and when we punish ourselves or others for failure, people are much less likely to innovate. Most times, doing something new doesn’t work. People will say things like, there’s a reason we don’t do it that way, or we’ve always done it the old way, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. But there’s always value in trying something new. And the folks that have a good relationship with failure are the ones that try something new. These are the visionaries on your team. Don’t stifle them.
- Optimization – You can’t optimize a system without recognizing its failures and shortcomings. This applies to any system: from programs to assembly lines to supply chains to teams of human workers. When we recognize failures and coach through them, we develop fixes that help us optimize. Optimization is a directive that is never finished.
- Productivity – This might seem backward for a lot of us. After all, fixing mistakes takes resources and time, thus reducing overall effectiveness and efficiency, right? But failure is always going to happen. It’s inevitable. So when we deal with failure in a healthy way, we actually make ourselves and our team more productive. It increases job satisfaction, reduces stress, and improves motivation to succeed.
How to Deal With Failure
So, we’ve established that failure is inevitable and that we’re faced with two choices: to deal with failure in a healthy way, or to deal with it in a dysfunctional way.
The obvious question is how do we deal with failure in a way that’s going to let us reap the rewards of failure?
Failure in our personal lives
Each of us experiences failure over and over in our daily lives. From things as small as letting your broccoli rot in the crisper drawer to making a mistake that costs thousands or even millions of dollars. Distress is normal. It’s what form this feeling of distress takes.
You could mourn over the waste of your $8 worth of broccoli, and tell yourself that your failure to eat this healthy cruciferous vegetable represents a massive personal flaw.
Or, you could figure out an effective meal planning system that helps you know what to buy when and reduces personal food waste.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll never let produce rot in the fridge again. Remember that no person is perfect and no system is perfect and expecting perfection is inhumane.
The difference is that when we believe that wasting a bag of broccoli makes us inherently flawed in some way, we believe that growth beyond this failure is impossible.
And when we believe that growth is impossible, we don’t grow.
So look for opportunities to grow. Develop personal systems that help you, and remember that the system serves you, not the other way around. If the system fails, throw it in the bin and create a new one.
Shame is a prison.
Developing this new relationship with failure takes time and hard work, and you will fail. That’s not okay, it’s good, actually. Failure is growth.
Failure in a professional context
If you’re a worker facing failure in your professional life, one thing that’s vitally important to remember is that you cannot control how your manager responds to your failure. Conversely, you can control how you respond to your failure.
It’s normal to let your manager’s response overwhelm how you personally feel about your failure. What’s important is that you reflect on the mistake and develop your response strategy after that storm has passed.
Remember, shame weakens you. Reject shame. I know this sounds like I’m saying that it’s easy, but it isn’t. It takes a lot of practice. It’s worth it, though.
Accept failure with calm. This is also a skill that takes time to develop.
Examine the chain of events that led to the mistake. If you can develop your own system to work more effectively, do it. If you need to enlist help from your manager or your team, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be sure to let them know that what benefits you also benefits them and the company.
In one position I held, I was repeatedly letting errors and typos slip through the editing process in our copy. I recognized that part of the problem was that the content team was working to deadline instead of ahead of time, so I didn’t always have the time to devote to editing that I needed. So I enlisted the help of the team and we developed a system that worked for all of us and resulted in getting us working 30 days ahead of deadline. This made us more agile and reduced the number of crisis level changes that needed to happen at deadline.
If you’re a manager dealing with a team member’s failure, remember this: scolding and punishment will do 2 things: they’ll reduce your employee’s confidence and sense of agency, and they will feel attacked and this may prevent them from taking feedback onboard. Scolding and punishment do not make people more effective and productive.
Understand that when your employees are unhappy and unengaged, they will do less work and that work will be of lower quality. This is not malicious. It’s just what happens. Manage in such a way that your employees feel safe and supported. You’re managing people, after all. That means that it’s your job to provide your team members with what they need to do their work.
Remember also that you have power over your employee. Sometimes that’s a lot of power, sometimes it’s less, but you can make or influence a firing or promotion decision, so you have power over them. Wield power sparingly. Forsake the stick and carrot approach. That’s an outdated model that doesn’t even work well for training animals, much less for developing your talent.
Coach through failure. Make sure that your employee understands what you and the team need, and check in and see if there are any obstacles in the way of your employee fulfilling those needs and see how the two of you can resolve them. Including your workers in that resolution contributes to a feeling of agency.
So, developing a healthy relationship with failure is good for you, your team, your company, and the bottom line. If you want a pleasant workplace and happy, engaged, productive team members, developing a positive relationship with failure is probably the best change you can make in your management style.
If you want to make change in your workplace, remember that modeling the desired behavior is a key part of making that change. It communicates more than just what you want. It shows people how to do it, too. Be kind and gracious. Demonstrate yourself as trustworthy, and people will trust you. Collaboration follows.