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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

No great mind ever got it right first time – Professional Effectiveness through Failure

You will fail at some point and, likely, at different points in your life. It's inevitable that human beings make mistakes. It’s inevitable that you, at times, base decisions on misinterpretations and misjudgments, that circumstances change unexpectedly and you don’t cope well, that you overlook certain aspects… the list goes on. The failure, some prefer to call it setback, may be small such as making a mistake on a client engagement. Or the failure may be huge, like losing a multi-million dollar project or losing a job you greatly valued or needed. And then there is the reality of mistakes made by others that report to you or who collaborate with you while you are responsible for the end result. How you handle these setbacks and failures raises or lowers the risks of failing again. How you handle them influences your future effectiveness and success. How you handle them influences others and how they perceive you. How you handle them shapes you as a person and as a leader.

People differ greatly on many dimensions. That’s a good thing, because one of the ways we add to this world is by our differences. We definitely differ in how we handle setbacks and failure. You might be one of those people who handle them remarkably well, bouncing back quickly and sharply, taking the learnings to the next step, the next project, the next job. Or you might belong to the group that handle them not so well to say the least. You might have coped well at some times in your life and not at all in others. That’s life, that’s reality, but are you willing to see it as it is and to learn from it?
In my work as organizational coach, mentor, trainer, and speaker I have observed what appear to be common themes among those leaders who tend to cope effectively with the inescapable – with setbacks and failure. I will discuss four of these themes.

1. Acknowledge, accept, and put it in perspective.
It’s a no-brainer, it makes so much sense, it’s beyond logical but also often the first derailer when dealing with failure. You can't begin to learn, grow, or bounce back from a mistake if you don't admit you've made one, let alone that you can be an respected, trusted, and effective colleague or leader. It's clearly not always easy to acknowledge your failure, judging from how often mistakes are denied, brushed away, or blamed on others. Some people go through great lengths to deny their mistakes and avoid accountability. I’m sure you know one or two people that fit this description. Owning up to your mistakes is a key factor distinguishing between people who do and people who don’t handle failure well, between people who are trusted and respected role models whom others like to follow and collaborate with and those who are avoided and distrusted. Acknowledging your mistakes usually stems from a deep-seated desire, or better, a core value pertaining to what’s right and to act with integrity.   
One of my clients, a senior manager at a manufacturing company, put all his energy in passing on the blame. He focused on saving his reputation rather than saving the project and of course, he was damaging his reputation more than he imagined. He invested much of his time in hiding the consequences from the board of directors which put other managers in a bad light. My client could have chosen to do the opposite: Acknowledge his mistakes, accept responsibility, and take steps to fix the problem and so demonstrate his integrity, his accountability, and his problem solving capabilities. It took my client two coaching sessions with painful confrontations to see things as they really were, to see the bigger picture and the long-term consequences of his choices, to assess the damage he had already done, and to take on the hard task of owning up to all involved. He confided in me this was the most difficult time in his life and one of the most shaping life experiences that changed him as a manager, as a husband, and as a father. He was now able to truly live the values that he had always said were at the heart of his leadership, and he was now able to see the bigger picture. In regards to that bigger picture, one simple and easy technique to use is asking yourself the question: What difference will it make in 10 years? How might I feel about this 6 months from now? What’s the very worst that can happen because of this mistake and will I be able to survive that?

2. Look for causes and solutions, not for cover-ups and blame.  
Dealing with mistakes is obviously not about blaming circumstances or people nor is it about justifying the mistake in any other way. If you have caused a problem, the good news is that you likely have at least some control over that cause, and thereby over the solution or at least over a way out. By focusing on finding the cause (and future solutions) rather than assigning blame you take control. You move to prevent similar failures from happening again. Simultaneously you are modeling that in many situations it is not just about having to prevent mistakes from happening. Such an objective could lead to unhealthy risk-avoidance and putting the brakes on innovation and growth. It’s also not about covering up in order to appear perfect which, as everyone knows, is impossible anyway. If you adopt an “I can learn and improve from this” mindset you avoid victim attitudes and behaviors and you avoid the detrimental attitude of helplessness.
Now many of my clients initially tell me that the above is all good and well in an organization such as Jack Welch’s GE, but in their company, you get killed for big mistakes. They tell me all the talk about owning up and about accountability is not working within their company and with their organization’s leadership. Of course, every company is different. There is great variety in values, leadership, management practices and the like. But isn’t it all too easy to hide behind that and not try and open up the organization towards healthier mistake-management and risk-management? With most of my clients we were able to learn to better navigate the specific political and leadership climate in their organization and to increase accountability and failure-management, at their individual level and often beyond.

3. Create some distance, take a break.
Unless you are dealing with a crisis that requires immediate action, you want to create distance between you and the situation, between you and your failure, and especially between you and your emotions. You want to distance yourself from intense emotions that blur your vision and that limit your perspectives. You literally need to take a break and get away from the task or difficulty at hand. You want to allow yourself to see different perspectives and you want to allow your brain to refocus. Confronted with failure you might find it hard to stop thinking and worrying about what's happened. You fret, you feel exposed, you feel embarrassed, and you might feel worried about your reputation and your performance review. All typical worries, of course. It might feel counter-intuitive, but the last thing you should do is keep a laser focus on the situation and on the problem. It will likely blind you, exhaust you, and discourage you. Again, if you’re not facing a crisis that needs instant action, getting some rest and physical activity are a plus and not just due to the positive effects of endorphins on brain activity. The main point is to let your mind wander. This facilitates connections to be made that you won’t make when you keep focused on the one failure, regardless how big it is. Creative combinations, integrative thinking, and borrowing from other fields of expertise is so much easier when you take a break from your problem and from your worries and emotions.
No matter what I write and how I present it, failing isn’t fun and your first response might always remain to want to deny, cover up, and divert. Increase your awareness so that you know your tendencies and pitfalls. We all have to face difficulty and failure some time. If you prepare yourself, and know how you will deal with it when you do fail, you'll be able to bounce back that much faster, and especially smarter.

4. Modeling failure management when subordinates have failed

People need to know they can trust you as a boss or a peer, no matter the situation. Do you support your colleagues or direct reports when they’ve made a mistake. Do you combine standing up for them with providing them the necessary insights and feedback to learn from their mistakes? Or do you condemn them or solve the problem for them? It is generally very demoralizing and insulting if someone tells you your work is inadequate or they tell you that you have failed, and next thing you know is that they exclude you from rectifying and solving the issue. My advice: avoid the tendency to go and fix the problem yourself. Also, while discussing the mistake, make sure to criticize the mistake, not the person but remain candid about what you see as contributing factors and what you see as the person’s role in it all. So play the ball, play the problem and not the person. If you attack, abandon, or criticize the person you have to be ready for frustration, resentment, and hiding. Next time something goes wrong it will probably be hidden from you or blamed on someone or something.

I will leave you with the following thought:
It is a reflection of your self-worth and your integrity in how you treat mistakes.

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