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4 Ways Great Leaders Get the Most Out of Failure

July 19, 2021

By Randy Hall


We are bad at almost everything before we are good at it. While this may be an accurate depiction of human change and learning, we still have an aversion to failure. As leaders, do we accept this? Or, do we ask how we can get the most out of failure for ourselves and our teams?

Failure Naturally Attracts Attention

Often we watch managers spend an incredible amount of time finding and highlighting mistakes. We can’t help but notice them; we’re drawn to things that are broken, erroneous, and out of place. It’s a human condition. Thousands of years ago it saved our lives to notice the flood waters rising or the tiger in the weeds. Today, we still remain adept at noticing the mistakes on our team. This means things like the missed deadline, the mediocre report, or the person not working hard enough find their way into our consciousness without any effort on our part. It’s inconvenient that we might not notice the extra effort, the well done report, or the diligent approach to work with the same degree of intensity, even if they are just as real and prevalent on our team.

Mistakes and failures attract our attention and that will likely continue. As leaders though, we have a responsibility to do the right things to help our team get better when the mistakes show up.

In Leadership, How We Respond to Failure Matters.

When we fail, or notice that others have failed, what we do next can make all the difference. Many times, we think that spending our time pointing out the error will be helpful; awareness is important. The challenge is that often that’s all we do. As managers we can fall into the trap of spending our day pointing out flaws, errors, or failures to our team. That’s a happy little job, one we may do with the best of intentions. In an effort to help people improve, we reason that they need to know what they did incorrectly. They might absolutely need that. They also shouldn’t dwell on it past the point of awareness.

Even when we fail ourselves, many of us spend most of our time beating ourselves up for the mistake. This results in negative self talk to reinforce how stupid we were or why we didn’t do a more reasonable or accurate thing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help us fail less at all.  In fact, it actually increases the chances that we keep repeating the same failure over and over. This happens because we never decided on a new course of action; we just flogged ourselves for the wrong one. Treat Failure as a Path to Progress

Move from failure to progress

Failure can be the most important part of progress.  It can be the thing that helps us find that new path, solve that recurring problem, or help someone on our team reach more of their own possibilities.  But  to do so we have to view it as an opportunity and then take certain steps to maximize the growth that can come after failures happen.  

How Leaders Can Get the Most Out of Failure

1. Analyze

I do not mean to analyze how incompetent we are, or how hopeless a team member might feel to us. I mean analyze the steps, including the thoughts or beliefs we had, as we did the work that was regarded as a failure.  That means asking yourself or others questions such as: 

  • What was my goal with this work?  
  • What process did I follow?  
  • What was I thinking as I did the work about what success meant for it?  

We need to focus on our failures and the failures of others as if we were an archaeologist, not an executioner.

2. Plan

Immediately after our analysis we want to plan what we do instead next time, or what we do next right now.  This is where learning happens, where improvements are discovered, and even where motivation to grow or develop happens. As managers we can spend little or no time on what someone does next because we spent it all on what was done wrong.  The other thing we often do here is simply tell them what to do next, as if we could install our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, experience into them through words. It would be convenient if that worked, but it doesn't. This needs to be their analysis and their plan.  We can’t learn for people, we can only help them as they learn and guide them through a process of learning so that we are a catalyst for making it happen.  Use questions, for others and ourselves, such as:

  • What would be the best way to approach this next time? 
  • What improvements or ideas could I try next?  
  • What goal should I be trying to achieve here?  
  • What should I be focusing on as I do this work?

3. Practice

About 40% of our daily activities are driven by habit, not choice. If we want to make changes in our activities or behaviors, it is critical that we practice the new thing we think might work better next time. Let’s say a report was just thrown together without much thought by someone on our team. Of course, we really wanted a thorough set of ideas and inputs and so we viewed their work as a failure. We felt that it needed to be more diligent, thoughtful, and thorough. By using our picture of their success, we can help them create a plan with a question like, “if you wanted me to read this and know that it was diligent, thoughtful and thorough, and believe that you had truly explored the subject and applied your best thinking to it, how would you approach this report?”

Define Success Through Repetition

We can work with them to think of ways they can plan for that definition of success. Doing this means then we can use questions to help them practice such as:

  • How will you practice doing these things in your plan?  
  • What can you write down ahead of time?
  • How will you walk through your process, even just with mental repetitions? 
  • How will you use the plan immediately on some work that you will do today or this week?

We have to do everything we can as leaders to help them get some repetitions in with the new behaviors they have planned.  The fascinating thing about the human brain is that mental repetitions, just thinking the new process through in detail, count just as much as actual live practice repetitions.  We can encourage mental rehearsals even if it might be a while before they have a chance to actually do that same kind of work. In fact, practice is critical if we want to turn our intentions for better work into a set of habits that actually result in better work. 

4. Evaluate

Now we want to solidify the things that we try which cause improvement for us. We evaluate our practice or our actual work and decide if we got the improvements we expected. Does our plan feel like it might work more effectively? Our job as leaders is to support the next iteration of the report or whatever we are working to improve with our experience, ideas, and perspective. This is where our expertise really matters in helping them validate that this plan, set of goals, beliefs, or this approach to work is the right one.

Humans learn effectively when they know what they are doing well or what is working better.  The failure itself  is not the teaching point.  It’s the things we do because of failure that make us more successful. These are the things our brain integrates into our mental maps to actually help us learn.  Finding out that 2+2 does not equal 5 is of no use to us for learning.  Discovering that the answer is 4 changes our mental map of how successful addition happens.  

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Conclusion

Failure is not a teaching tool, but it is an important part of the learning process. You can be a leader who turns failure into future success by spending your time and energy on exploring, defining, and practicing that future success with others, and even with yourself. 

We get to choose as a leader whether we want to be the person who helps others achieve more, or the person who points out where they haven’t.  But we should know that just announcing or focusing on the failures does little to help success happen.  That’s true for ourselves and true for the people we lead.


What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

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