Embracing Failure



Failure is something many of us struggle with accepting both personally, and as a manager or trainer when others seemingly fail under us. How many of you have had a manager react in anger towards your failure? How many of you have reacted in anger towards your employees when they have made a mistake or failed to meet a deadline?


"Its the way my managers in my career always dealt with failure or shortcomings. How are you going to learn if you don't have consequences?"



An actual quote from someone I once worked with on this very topic. It's logical, right? I was guilty of this line of thinking early in my management career when I worked retail. If an employee in my department messed up, they were met with anger by me or my counterpart. Guess how our retention was in that department? Abysmal is what it was.


I could use the excuse that my manager, my counterpart, and those around us handled things in that way so that's why we did it. Sure. And that is valid in many respects because we learn through modeling. However, most often we react with anger because it's an immediate reaction, it's an easy reaction, and frankly it's a weak way of managing when you're met with a difficult situation because anger can cause fear and make your employees "stand down." But you're a leader, not a grizzly. And this isn't a fight, so let's work on changing that mindset in the workplace.


You probably have frequently heard the advice to wait to have a conversation until you've processed what's occurred and you've cooled off. I couldn't agree with this sentiment more, but furthermore you need to fully process and discover where you can help your employee truly learn from a failure. The goal is not to scare them into never messing up again, because functioning in an anxious state leads to more mistakes and it becomes a vicious cycle. Even if you wait a while to have the conversation, anger can still be an immediate reaction because you allow it to burn in the time between.


Instead, as a manager investigate the mistake and ask these questions of yourself:


1. Who is affected by this mistake?

2. How immediate are the effects?

3. Have we lost money due to this mistake?

4. How did this mistake happen? (If you can discern this on your own, otherwise wait to discuss)

5. Is there something I as the manager could have done to help prevent this mistake?

6. What can I as the manager do to help my employee in the future?


Once you have processed these questions, you'll have a clear understanding of what happened, the effects of the mistake, and the severity. Most importantly, you HAVE to look at yourself as the leader to see where you could have prevented the failure. Yes, you. As leaders we have to be comfortable with failure and taking the blame, because everything starts from the top and you must always self reflect when you are leading others. Could you have trained them more thoroughly on this topic? Did you not give clear directions? Did you make sure your employee was comfortable with the task before you gave it to them?



Next, comes embracing the failure. You cannot change that it happened, and yelling at your employee will not prevent it from happening again nor will it get you to the bottom of what happened or where your employee is coming from. If the mistake is minor, a simple quick chat will suffice. That is to say, just ask the employee if there's anything you could have done to make it easier for them to have met the expectations. That's it. If the mistake were severe enough to warrant disciplinary action (though proceed there with caution) you should always still ask what you can do as the leader to support them in learning from their mistake.


Most often I would recommend this format for a failure meeting:


1. The rule of three: For every negative, always have 3 positives to start with. That is to say, if your employee makes a mistake, you wholeheartedly offer 3 valuable things about them so that they know they are still valued and secure THEN have the discussion. Don't make it fake, and don't rush it. I can't explain how important it is that you put time into your employees no matter how busy you are or how time inefficient you feel it is. The payoff is worth it.


For example: "Jane, you are always so quick to get your tasks done and your personality lights up our office. You do really excellent work for our guests and I am so glad to have you on the team. I wanted to talk to you today about that deadline from last week that we didn't quite meet. Is there anything I could have done to make that easier to meet?"


2. Listen and guide: Even if you are a manager who doesn't like "excuses" you need to let your employee feel heard and hear where they are coming from. REALLY hear them. This will give you valuable insight into their frame of mind and show you what their work style and ethic is all about. If it's the same "excuse" each time, dive into it to see how you can help break them out of that mold. As the leader it IS your job to build upon strengths, guide away from weaknesses, and help your employees grow.


Once you're heard your employee out, don't tell them that the things they just said are all unacceptable excuses, don't dismiss them. Instead, ask questions about what they feel they need to be successful. Ask what they think they could do in the future to avoid this mistake and if there is anything you can do to help them.


3. Take the blame--within reason. As leaders we have to be comfortable with looking inwards and seeing where we failed, even if we were largely hands-off on a project (maybe TOO hands-off?). If you discover that your employee failed because they weren't appropriately trained, or they misunderstood your expectations then it will be imperative that you take the blame where it's necessary. Remember, you are a team, your job is to lead the team, but you are still a team nonetheless and their failure is just as much yours. Always look inwards first.


4. End positively: Do not end a meeting about failure negatively. Don't intimidate the employee. Offer direct solutions and be empathetic above all else. Even if you feel that the employee should know better, perhaps they don't! Maybe they need some time to go back through a topic, maybe they're feeling insecure in their work quality. Be their confidant so that you can help them grow. End the meeting on a light note, even if it is to ask them about their weekend plans or make a cheesy joke.


Lastly, remember we're dealing with adults. To treat them as anything other than that is ineffective at best. Have conversations. Laugh. Learn from failure. But do not punish your employees, make failure the best learning tool there is because it's just that! The damage is already done, now harness it and rebuild.

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kirsten@allheartconsulting.com    541-423-2665     Central Oregon and the PNW