Jason Lauritsen wrote this thought-provoking post on how we approach the concept of failure and why it has such a stigma in our society. He argues that failure doesn’t need to be something we fear – we should embrace it and move forward from it. (It’s a good post – go read it!)
This got me thinking about how we as a society in the US approach failure in general….particularly in the newer generations of workers. You hear the jokes about “everyone gets a trophy” or soccer games where no one keeps score. Because we don’t want our precious children to feel the sting of defeat “too soon”. Unfortunately, “too soon” easily turns into “ever”…and helicopter parents who earned an indulgent chuckle when their children are in kindergarten solicit anger and frustration from bosses who see the results in their employees. (Kathy Caprino expertly addresses the parenting aspect of business in this article on Forbes.com.)
Consider these things THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED IN A REAL COMPANY. WITH ADULTS.
- A mother calls her 25-year-old son in sick at work, “because he needs his sleep.”
- Parents of an intern call the HR department to ask what clothes they should buy their 21-year-old daughter for her summer at the company, even though the information was sent to the intern.
- An employee calls his mother in the middle of a meeting with an HR manager to talk about what is going on…not once, but TWICE. (Seriously. This one amazes me.)
These rather extreme examples are a moment in the life of a person who has not yet learned how to cope with the demands of a corporate environment. But the fallout extends beyond these one-off situations, and it’s not just the Millennials displaying an inability to handle failure. Do any of these sound familiar?
- A senior manager refuses to “rock the boat” and speak out against an initiative that he knows will damage the culture because he’s afraid of risk.
- A vice president insists on full consensus for every single decision she makes because she doesn’t trust her own judgement.
- A CEO yells and screams at his executive team when the stock goes down because he’s surrounded by idiots who can’t do anything right (or so he thinks).
- An entry-level employee hates her job because she doesn’t get a promotion in the first 6 months.
We are a society of instant gratification. We are a society of limiting risk (unless we know we have substantial backup). We are a society that lacks perseverance in the face of repeated adversity. We are a society of people who think “Failure is not an option” is a rallying cry.
I’m here to tell you – failure is ALWAYS an option. Without failure, we would never be able to celebrate success. Without failure, we would never appreciate a job well done. Without failure, we would never be motivated to better ourselves. Without failure, we would never learn anything.
Failure drives us forward – but only if we approach it correctly. Here are some thoughts on how managers and employees (and yes, parents!) alike can harness the power of failure:
- Acknowledge failure WILL happen: The idea that if you can go without a mistake for 60 seconds, you can go forever without one is ridiculous. Accept that failure at some point will occur and give yourself (and others) permission to fail.
- Talk about failure: Talking about something helps to remove the stigma of that thing. By talking openly about failure, you help to create a culture where such transparency is expected and welcomed. There is nothing more powerful than a leader who admits his/her vulnerability, shares his/her failures, and then shares what he/she learned from it.
- Bring options to the table: If you goof up, figure out how you’re going to make it better. Don’t just wallow in self pity (or freak out and hide). Start a dialogue about the situation so you can move on. Own up, share what you think contributed to the mistake, offer some options to rectify the issue, and solicit ideas from your stakeholder.
- Fail once – and learn from it: While failure is a part of the process, repeated failure can be a sign of something else. I don’t mind an employee who keeps trying new things, isn’t 100% success the first time, but applies what he/she has learned to the next thing. I do mind an employee who makes the same mistakes over and over again and blames others for his/her inability to change.
If you spend any time in the working world, you’re going to experience failure, from either your actions or the actions of others. And some of those failures are gonna be doosies. Failure is not a problem to solve. It’s a lesson to learn. Our reaction to failure is what ultimately drives success. So will you seize failure as an opportunity? Or will you hide behind your inability to embrace what failure can do for you?
I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.
– Michael Jordan
[Author’s Note: I know there are a lot of people who DO handle failure well. And that we all know of someone who has persevered, regardless of the odds. And to those people, I say “you rock.”]