Sooner or later, failure turns from a dreaded outcome to an inevitable reality of working life. To avoid it at all costs is self-sabotage, but to meet it unprepared is plain irresponsible. Leaders, in particular, bear the responsibility of helping their teams work through the initial pain and disappointment to come out the other side having learnt and grown from the past.
Neither finger-pointing nor laissez-faire leadership, however, is enough to tide people through failure. Rather, it calls for an intricate balance of push and pull, and of guidance and autonomy, to help people learn to harness the bitterness of failure to fuel subsequent re-attempts. Here’s how to do just that.
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Failure can be a hard pill to swallow. When it’s a team failure, though, it can be much easier to avoid talking about it; things would get awkward, and no one really knows what to say to each other when something everyone’s been working on for a while doesn’t bear any fruit.
This, however, can be much more damaging to long-term team effectiveness; not talking about failure can reinforce the stigma against it. The more you pretend you’re not afraid of something, the greater that fear grows. Fear of failure is a huge stumbling block to success and growth in the long run. A team that fears failure will tend to have a risk-averse mindset geared more towards avoiding failure than chasing success.
The last thing people need when they’re faced with the fact of their failure is to have someone minimise the weight of what just happened. Not only does it come off as patronising, it can also be more discouraging than just being frank.
Treat your team like adults, not children who need to be coaxed and protected at all costs from being hurt. When you minimise their failure, you can come across as lacking confidence in their ability to bounce back from it. What’s more, minimising it can create a false sense of confidence that’s counterproductive to learning from their mistakes.
You only really learn to appreciate and long for the day when you know what the night feels like. Rather than being denied, minimised, or swept under the carpet, negative feelings need to processed properly. While there’s no need to downplay the weight of what just happened, it’s crucial to allow people to have some time and space to feel down for a while when they fail.
Positivity and growth is not about being completely free from negative emotions. The dejection and disappointment associated with failure can turn into fuel for growth, provided that people allow themselves some time to feel negative initially.
There will be no growth or comeback from failure without learning, and there will be no learning without scrutinising what exactly went wrong and why. In a group setting, though, the difficulty is going through this process without it devolving into a witch hunt for who’s most at fault, or retreating within themselves to ruminate and torture themselves with pointless thoughts of what could have been.
Great leaders know how to take charge of the post-mortem process after failure without dictating everything. For people to be honest, supportive, and growth-minded when processing their failure, though, they need to feel psychologically safe. No one will speak up honestly about what went wrong if they feel like someone else is going to judge them for it. Leaders are responsible for providing such an environment of psychological safety.
To that end, it’s important to help people recognise that a team succeeds together, but they also fail together and grow together. It’s also often the leader who must get the ball rolling; she must be unafraid to have authentic and vulnerable conversations about failure and how to bounce back from it.