A Cup of Leadership CaffeineNo one wants to fail. It’s not something that we typically seek out as part of our personal and organizational character building experience.  However, from a distance, we tend to mythologize failure, especially in the context of achieving future success.

Run a web search on some phrases built around failure, and you’ll come up with quite a few reflecting a very true statement, “Failure is a teacher.”  Our histories and leadership legends all benefit from the context of understanding the final outcome of the story, but the telling of the story doesn’t adequately capture the powerful emotional forces that occur at the moment of failure.

Certainly, the stories are right and the lessons instructional. They inspire us to persevere, but the failure-leading to-success legends don’t guide us how to respond and cope in the moment.

In my own experience (personal and as a leader supporting others), the moment of failure is filled with a swirl of emotions ranging from anger to frustration to a deep depression-like funk.  In particular, for individuals that have experienced only success in life and career, and yes there are those that enjoy mostly charmed existences due to their skills and perhaps some good fortune, the moment of failure feels much like being transported to an alien landscape where suddenly everything is not as it should be.

As a leader seeking to help team members through a dark point in time, or perhaps dealing personally with your own failure disorientation, here are a number of suggestions to help light the way.

Five Ideas to Help You and Your Team Members Cope with a Setback:

1.  Speed is of the essence. The faster you can help everyone move from “what just happened?” to “what next?” the faster you pass through the cold, alien landscape of failure. Linger too long on an extended self-pity party and you might as well set up camp and become a permanent resident. Your goal must be to move through this phase or process in a hurry.

2.  Don’t get caught up in blaming the world. Does it really help to blame everything and everyone else for the failure?  Once again, attempt to move quickly to “what next?” or you risk an extended stay in the land where “yelling into and shaking your fist at the wind” is a national pastime.  It might feel good for a moment, but eventually, it’s just dumb.

3.  Beat yourself with a wet noodle and move on! If the failure is personal, resist the urge to blame your lack of ability.  The destructive “I’m not smart enough/good enough” mentality likes to attach itself to your frontal lobe and take root, ensuring a growing problem with self-doubt.  Instead, admit that you made mistakes, that you failed to exert enough effort to properly see or deal with the issue and once again, jump on the “OK, I won’t make those mistakes again…what next?” train.

4. Failures are often not performance problems.  Don’t confuse the two Leader, please don’t make failure a punishable offense.  Individual or team failures are different than performance problems and you should treat them as such.  Too many leaders allow untreated performance issues to infect team environments, and then they attack the team, not the root cause of the underperformer.  Don’t misdiagnose and mistreat here or the failure disease will spread.

5.  Your time and asking the right questions will help your team members start moving forward. For individual failures, it is essential for you to create some one-on-one time and allow the failure/grieving process to unfold.  Your role here is to listen and ask questions such as:

  • What went wrong?
  • What did you learn?
  • How can you prevent this from recurring?
  • What are your ideas for moving forward?
  • How can I help?

Remember to set a follow-up discussion to ensure that the individual is back on track and focus on the challenges looking forward instead of the issues that are increasingly distant in the rear-view mirror.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Dealing with adversity is one of the core challenges of the leader.  Developing a coping strategy for yourself and your team is essential for success.  The legends and myths of failure are right…they do provide critical learning opportunities and teachable moments.  Nonetheless, the fact that you or your team members are benefitting from one of these “priceless” moments offers little help or comfort at the moment of failure.  Understanding how to leverage the emotions and the energy of the situations will help you create your own legends and examples.  It will also reduce the unhealthy fear of failure that stifles so much creativity.

You don’t have to embrace or smile at failure.  Instead, kick it in the teeth and use the emotional energy to propel you and your team forward.