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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Three Strategies To Help Reframe Failure


Often, we think of failure as personal: “I am a failure.” But when you feel like you are failing at work, it doesn’t mean you are a failure.

It’s only natural to take it personally, though. For starters, your confidence can take a hit when you make a mistake. And failure definitely causes stress. When you are stressed or reactive, you are prone to being problem-focused and may lose your ability to think well. You may also feel like a victim, which only further blocks your creativity. Your creativity and sensibility can help you to see fresh choices and paths forward — but not if it’s blocked. 

Having skill in the midst of failure can help you regain power and get your feet back under you. It can help you to work productively with a failure without thinking you are one. Here are three strategies to help you reframe your perspective on failure.

Acknowledge a failure, no matter its size.

The first strategy for working productively with a failure is to acknowledge that it has happened. Tell the truth — to yourself and others. As Chris Cardinal writes, "We’re conditioned to focus on “big” failures: a failed product launch, lost sale, or any other unmistakable instances of falling short. When a miss doesn’t rise to that level of failure, we’re often biased to consider it “close enough” or at least a draw. It’s too easy to dismiss the small failures or missteps. If they don’t carry a significant cost, or if they’re fairly easily resolved, then we can brush them off as typical."

Naming something a failure and bringing a measure of objectivity to the telling of it takes a certain amount of grit and courage. And that’s exactly what gets built each time you name it. Over time, you not only become more resilient in the face of setbacks, you help create a workplace culture that has a healthier relationship to failure. As a result, you get more and more comfortable naming it without spiraling into shame. 

Look past failure without trying to lay blame anyone (including yourself).

The second strategy for dealing with a failure is to sidestep the blame game, which is only likely to send you into a tailspin of anger and regret. 

In his book Teaching Smart People to Learn, Chris Argyris observes, “Failure forces you to reflect on your assumptions and inferences. So, when smart people do fail — or merely underperform — they can be surprisingly defensive. Instead of critically examining their own behavior, they cast blame outward — on anyone or anything they can.”

It’s just as important to uncollapse what’s happening or happened from your self-worth. While you shouldn’t be defensive, you also shouldn’t blame yourself. Remember, you are not a failure. If you tell yourself that you are a failure, you’re unlikely to engage the emotional distance necessary to objectively reflect on what happened and learn from it. 

Make the choice to learn from failure.

And the third strategy for working with failure is to learn from it. Of course, you may need to give yourself a bit of breathing space to let your emotional reaction settle down before you can learn anything. But once you have some distance, really look at what happened and your part in it. 

What can you take accountability for? What step did you fail to take? What do you wish you had done differently? 

After you’ve assessed the situation, mop up the mess! Offer an apology to whoever needs it. Say you are sorry and be clear about what you are learning. This can be the toughest part of dealing productively with a failure, and it is certainly the most impactful. 

If you are leaning out over the tips of your skis and challenging yourself and your team in big, bold ways, you are bound to make mistakes. Innovation is messy. But if you can work through a failure and find your way to the other side, you will be so much better for it. The greatest leaders learn from failure and never forget the lesson. In this way, you only have to make each mistake one time. Isn’t that amazing news?

Previously published on Forbes