Failure. Oddly enough, it's an incredibly popular subject.
So popular, in fact, that for many it has made the leap from healthy to unhealthy. A healthy attitude towards failure spurs you on to be bold, take risks, and learn from mistakes. An unhealthy failure attitude can result in over-reaching, making excuses, failing to understand a need to change, or flat out laziness.
We all know the stories of people who have turned a failure into an incredible story of success. Abraham Lincoln, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney and Michael Jordan stand out as a few such stories.
But what about the stories we've never heard? The stories of the people who got so comfortable with failure, that they never turned it around? The stories of those who were so destroyed by their failures that they could never take risks again? The psychologist in me wonders if convincing people that "failure is good" is really always a great idea. And the statistician in me wonders if the stories of failure-turned-success are more in alignment with winning the lottery than they are with a repeatable approach to cultivating leaders.
There are four things we tend to do with failure that can lead us down the road to more failure.
4 Success Killing Mistakes
1. The Definition of Insanity
The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expecting a different result.
- Albert Einstein
We recently completed some research on customer relationship management project failure (click here if you would like to download the executive summary). One of the findings shattered a myth that we had long believed. We had always assumed that organizations that failed on their first attempt had learned valuable lessons that they would then apply to the next attempt in order to improve their odds of success.
In fact, there was virtually no difference in success on the first, second or third attempt. Businesses, and the people in them, habitually do the same thing the same way and expect a different result!
Failure is serious business. And repeated failure without learning is a dangerous and expensive habit. Failure can be a great way to learn and grow if we own, understand and learn the right lessons from mistakes. Finding the lessons takes work, and sometimes the right lesson isn't as obvious as it may seem.
2. It's Not Me … It's You
It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.
- Nikolai Gogol
We all know the type. The individuals who shift blame. They're exceptional at convincing themselves but, over time, it becomes increasingly obvious what the real problem is.
Most organizations eventually learn to either rid themselves of these people, or to work around them. But for the individuals with this problem, it is a career and relationship killer. They have a built thick wall of defense around themselves, usually passive-aggressive in nature, making it almost impossible to help them see that the problem is inside of them. They also often believe that they are entitled to something and when they don't get it, they don't accept that perhaps they have failed to earn it.
At this point, you've probably pictured someone in your mind's eye that fits the above description. Now erase that picture and replace it with yourself. In the book The Oz Principle, the authors point out that the only way to be a part of the solution to a failure, is to own the fact that you are a part of the problem. We are all guilty of this attitude at times and, if it runs rampant in an organization, it can create a caustic culture of blame.
3. It's Not Me … Thank You
I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
- Pablo Picasso
This one is a slight twist on number 2, above. It is perhaps more subtle, but nearly as destructive. These are the individuals who own their failures, but rather than learn from them, they run away. They choose to give up rather than to grow.
There is a fine line here. Sometimes failure should teach us that we are the wrong person for the job, or that we need to give up responsibility for something that is better handled by someone else. When are we handing off our failures and making them an undue burden on others?
•When we don't challenge ourselves first to grow in that area.
•When we see the range of areas where we are adding value to our co-workers steadily shrinking.
•When we rightly conclude that someone is better suited to a task, but don't expand into other areas that we are well suited to in return.
4. Destroyed by Failure
I don't know why we so glorify failure. Failure sucks. And hurts. And empties your bank account.
- Vivek Tuljapurkar
One thing is certain about failure: it hurts.
At a minimum, it is deeply painful to learn that we were wrong in our assumptions about ourselves or about our ideas. Failure could cost us our job. But, in the worst case, failure can hurt many others.
An epic failure can be so difficult to deal with, that there can be permanent consequences. There are thousands of stories of career and education fails that are so upsetting, that an individual takes their own life.
Guarding against catastrophic failure is important. It is a balance of attitude (not defining yourself by success) and boundaries (knowing how much risk you can tolerate).
Plan to Succeed
When failure is not an option, neither is innovation.
- Brené Brown
Being bold and taking risks are good things. Moving too quickly and setting yourself and others up for certain failure are not. When taking risks, keep the following in mind:
- Understand your failure tolerance. Not everyone is cut out to take big risks. Take risks that you can learn from - not the risks that will cost too much if you fail.
- Failure is painful. Plan for success - do everything you can to avoid failure. Carefully plan the risks you take. See if you can do a less-risky test rather than leaping in. Have a plan B.
- Evaluate your attitude towards failure. Review the four mistakes above and make an attempt to see yourself in every one of them. How will you own failures, learn from them, and move on in a healthy way?
- Surround yourself with healthy risk takers. Be careful about those who don't take it seriously, learn the wrong lessons, blame others, or take risks that they can't handle.
Originally published on April 14, 2015 by SpeakerMatch Speakers Bureau