Updated: Nov 6, 2022
We have all experienced the feeling of failure in both our personal and professional lives. How we view and react to the missteps can make all the difference in how we move forward in our careers and relationships, as well as enhance our skills so that we can reach our vision of success.
In my leadership career, I have experienced many failures in the workplace, and I responded differently to those failures depending on how my leaders approached our conversations. There were some that showed up with a tone of judgment where I knew I was going to hear them brag about how they would have approached the situation. Others were invested in me and curious about what I needed to improve so that I could be successful the next time a similar situation occurred.
Now, as an executive coach, this topic comes up often in my sessions with leaders around how they approach failures with their teams. The coaching sessions can trigger me as usually the leader wants to discuss how they can "fix" their team as they are not seeing the results they clearly communicated or want to vent about the failure that occurred and place blame. Sound familiar?
I begin to get curious and ask did they show up with judgment and display that in their tone during their meeting? Are there accusatory questions about why the result was not achieved? Could the phrase "just get it done" be used to make the team member feel less than or ashamed?
Employees today need leaders to be objective when failures occur and help them lay out a road map of what specifically can be done to enhance their results moving forward. Everything is not going to go right all of the time but if we can set up a trusting environment where failure is looked at from a different perspective, as a way to learn and grow, great results can be achieved — not only in the business but in the way we communicate and brainstorm new ideas. Here are three ways leaders can foster a more positive and generative relationship with failure and equip their teams to move forward.
1. Be objective.
This is a skill that a majority of the leaders I coach have not thought about when approaching conversations around failure. They show up with what I described above as judgment and want to know why it didn't happen the way they wanted or why the team member didn’t just follow the company playbook. When approaching these conversations, you set the tone as the leader and if you come from a place of judgment it can be taken in an accusatory manner and create an "us" versus "them" mentality. Instead, prepare your mindset before approaching these conversations and ask yourself the following:
• Am I prepared to let go of my judgment? • How can I remain focused on the team member and understand what is valuable to them in this situation? • What will I do, should I be triggered and start to display a negative tone?
2. Focus on the future.
I stated previously that we all have experienced failure in the past and will again — it's inevitable. When you are working with your team members on enhancing their skills, focus on what success will look like in a similar situation in the future. All too often we spend the majority of the conversations with our team focused on the reason why something happened or what they did to cause a failure. Instead, change your mindset as a leader. Know that we cannot change what happened, but we can look at this as an opportunity for growth. Show up, be curious and ask questions such as:
• What will you do differently next time? • How can I support you in developing in this area? • What can you do to grow in this space before we meet next time?
3. Create a clear road map.
After we’ve mastered the steps above, this last one is all about the follow-through so that we don't live in the same vicious cycle of failure where the same mistakes continue to occur. Before leaving your meeting make sure that the team member documents clear action steps that they are going to take in order to succeed. Set success metrics and timelines and provide resources to help them grow in this area before your next meeting together. Have them email you their "road map" and do your part as their leader to follow up to see how they are progressing.
Remember, failures are going to happen so it then becomes a question of what type of environment you wish to create as a leader in these situations when failures occur. Be objective, focus on the future and create a clear road map. It will take time to show up in this manner as a leader, but the reward is an environment that fosters growth, creativity and ownership that can lead to enhanced results. Set a tone free of judgment and one of exploration so that your team members can have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
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