Is ‘Failure’ a Bad Word In Your Workplace?

The author says that a common approach to failure in organizations is to pretend that it didn’t happen, but she says that it’s actually important to embrace and integrate failure and what can be learned from it to improve going forward.

They tell us it’s important. But we don’t talk about it much. It’s just too uncomfortable.

Every once in a while there will be a tiny module in one of our leadership courses about it. (peeking between fingers) Is it over yet?

What is IT? Failure – with a capital F! This big, colossal Bad Thing that happened. Once it happens (heaven forbid) it becomes something to be overcome, defeated, and gotten rid of in some fashion.

Here’s how we traditionally “overcome” failure:

In an effort to maintain the “everything is fine” façade, we pretend like it didn’t happen. By refusing to allow ourselves to feel the frustration, disappointment, and sadness that comes from the failure, we shove it down and try to make sure that nobody else can see it. (Including ourselves!)

And then we make damn sure it’s not going to happen ever again! The mental chatter is “I don’t know what I did wrong but I’m going to figure it out and make sure it can’t happen again.”

So we do things like getting additional training. Or start looking at systems. We build systems to essentially protect us from ourselves. We make sure that whatever we failed at could not possibly happen again; because we’re DOING all these right things to make sure it’ll never happen.

(Part of the “making sure it never happens again” is the idea of “punishing ourselves”. The mental chatter is: “I was stupid, I was an idiot, I should have known better.”)

A third common approach to overcoming failure is the noble sounding: “I’m going to learn from it.”

In our efforts to ‘learn from it’, we harden ourselves. We steel ourselves. The mental chatter becomes “I’m going to “overcome” this thing; I’ll push back against it.”

This means we avoid future situations that could lead to a similar failure. The idea of ‘learning from it’ is “learning” that we don’t even step in that because it’s just going to go badly all together.

Also in that ‘learning’ category is to publically find some fault in ourselves. Under the label of “claiming responsibility” for the failure, it actually becomes an act of public self-flagellation. (A dear friend of mine once described it as self-defecation…yes, you read that right.)

“Well, it was the first time and I should have known that X.”

“I’m not as bright as the other guys so I have to learn things the hard way.”

“I was naive and I didn’t understand but now I’m learning.”

You can see that all three of these approaches are not getting us where we want to go. All three of these approaches lead to future failures and the future inability to take a risk – to grow and to stretch.

I propose that we forget, absolutely forget, this whole idea of “overcoming” failure.

Failure is not something to overcome!

Failure is something to be embraced and integrated.

Truthfully, there’s no such thing as failure. There’s only what we expected/planned/wanted to happen that contrasted with what actually happened.

Let me say that again. There is simply the difference in what we expected to happen versus what actually happened.

If what we expected to happen versus what actually happened was something we liked or something good, we call ourselves lucky.

If what we expected to happen was different than what actually happened, and we didn’t like the result, then we call it failure.

Either way, it’s simply a mismatch between what we expected to happen and what actually happened.

There’s nothing to “overcome” because whatever happens, that so called failure gives you access to a capacity you never would have known you had, a skill you never would have known you possess, were it not for that incident.

So, how do you integrate and embrace failure?

First, allow yourself to feel it. There’s a certain amount of disappointment, sadness, and/or frustration that bubbles up when what happened didn’t match what you wanted or expected to happen. There’s a sense of loss around that. And while it may not be a loss for forever, it is a loss for that expectation in that moment.

So allow yourself to feel that! Allow yourself to feel the sadness, the frustration, the embarrassment, or whatever the emotion is. Just allow yourself to feel it and actually experience the feeling. This very well may include running to the bathroom and crying and screaming and yelling! Allow those things to happen – it’s okay.

If you allow yourself to feel the failure, if you allow yourself to acknowledge the difference between what you planned and what actually happened – from a curious perspective – then the inspiration of what to do next will, in fact, rise to the surface.

And here’s the interesting thing: It might be getting more training or creating a new system. It might be some of the other things that formerly fell under our description of ‘overcoming failure’. But the thing of it is, we’re not ‘overcoming’ it anymore. We’re not fighting it anymore. We’re not hiding it anymore.

Instead, we’re integrating that failure into our experience. You are recognizing that every single thing that has EVER happened with you, for you, through you and to you, has come together to create YOUR unique contribution.

That failure is, in fact, part of what you bring to the world. And it is the knowing that that failure is part of your whole package that equips you to do something nobody else can do. That is truly integrating and embracing the failure.

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.