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Henley Leadership Group Blog

What To Do When You Feel Like You Are Failing At Work

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Previously published on Forbes.com

Let’s face it: Failing sucks. But lately, I seem to be doing it more than usual. Okay, that’s dramatic. The truth is that I’m making more mistakes than I like to. And people I work with are pointing them out. I have a teensy tendency towards perfectionism, so my tolerance for errors is kind of low.

For any of us, though, this uptick in mistakes is pretty understandable. Our work lives are moving super fast, but the demands aren’t easing up. The urgency and pressure can make us more error-prone, and that, in turn, creates more stress.

When you make mistakes, your power and confidence can take a hit. But learning to deal better with breakdowns and failures can help you regain power and get your feet back under you. It can help you to deal with a failure without thinking you are one.

Before you can learn to deal with failure and breakdowns, however, you need to take a closer look at what happens when you’re face to face with them. A breakdown is an interruption in what you thought was going to happen. Things don’t go the way you thought they would. You get feedback from an unsatisfied client who is taking her business elsewhere. Your department runs over budget. Stock prices fall. These things typically cause anxiety, fear, or some other unpleasant reaction.

There are also some things you instinctively want to protect yourself against. In his article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Chris Argyris says there are four things we try to avoid when experiencing a breakdown:

  1. Embarrassment
  2. Threat
  3. Feeling vulnerable
  4. Feeling incompetent

And to be sure, all of these things are worth avoiding! We just don’t always notice right away that that’s what we’re doing. One of my recent mistakes is a perfect example. I had created a client proposal all wrong, and so I had to apologize to the client about it, as well as a handful of my team members. But when my team first brought the mistake to me, I was defensive. I looked for someone else to blame. What I was trying to avoid was feeling incompetent and being embarrassed. After all, I should know how to write a decent client proposal.

We have to recognize this inner urge and then retrain ourselves to stop defaulting to an unhealthy response like blame or defensiveness. It’s essential for being able to “fail fast” – to get back up and get going again.

Reflect, Admit, Apply, Repeat

A man says to his therapist, “I’ve just gotten fired for the seventh time in the last five years. I’m having trouble with my wife and I’ve already been divorced three times. I desperately need you to help me understand: Why are there so many screwed-up people in the world?”

Now that is a perfect example of non-productive reasoning! Productive reasoning, on the other hand, can help you learn from your failures so that you can deal with future mistakes more productively. Here’s a three-step process to help you engage in productive reasoning:

  1. Self-reflect about what you are holding as the “truth,” what you don’t know enough about and what your part in the breakdown may be. To the degree that you are willing, share this with your team as a way of taking accountability for your part.
  2. Set aside time for your team to reflect about what they are holding as the “truth,” what you collectively don’t know enough about, what each person’s part in the breakdown may be, and anything else that the collective group can see when engaging in double-loop learning. To the degree that each team member is willing, encourage them to share with the team what they are accountable for in the breakdown.
  3. Apply what you learn together.

Owning Your Part in What Happened

Chris Argyris advises, “reflect critically on your own work performance.” In other words, own your part in it — be responsible. This step is critical. A big part of handling a failure better is not blaming others for it.

Consider the following examples of how you may have contributed to what happened:

  • I ask questions in a way that closes down discussions.
  • I don’t delegate very well; I get involved in things that I shouldn’t.
  • I was defensive and engaged my self-protective strategy.
  • I don’t say “No” enough because I don’t want to let people down.

It may be hard work to see your part, but keep looking and, above all, keep leading. Great leaders maintain solid skill and ability no matter what circumstances are happening around them. In this way, they become unflappable. It’s how they foster trust, safety, and innovation at work. It’s worth working towards.

You can learn a lot about yourself from each breakdown or failure that happens at work or in life. But also remember that in order to learn, you have to take the sting out of failure. In healthy teams, failure is regarded as a learning experience, not a pretext for punishment. Innovation always involves taking risks, and it is understood that the risk taker will sometimes stumble. You must give yourself and others the space to take these risks and fail. Healthy teams stay away from unhealthy responses.