Learn from (and Celebrate) Failures

Failing might be embarrassing. It might be painful financially or it could make you worry about your reputation. But you know what? Every failure is an opportunity to learn.

If we – and our teams – don’t experience failure, we might not push ourselves to do better. Feeling comfortable almost never gives us an edge on the competition.

Think about a few times in your career or personal life when you attempted something and failed. Grab a piece of paper and jot those failures down on the left side. Then, on the right side, make a point-form list of what you did to recover from each failure or how you overcame the challenges.

Whether it was work-related or personal, I suspect many of those failures gave you:

  •         A new perspective and quite likely a win
  •         Lessons in managing adversity
  •         An opportunity to reflect and figure out what you could have done differently
  •         Ideas about how to avoid this situation in the future
  •         Resolve 

Many times, our coaching clients discover that it’s their failures – not their successes – that made them stronger leaders.

Similarly, we can learn a lot about other people by asking about their experiences with failure.

In fact, any time that you’re interviewing potential new hires or consultants – or maybe considering which team member to choose for a particular project or promotion – asking candidates to tell you about two or three times they’ve failed and what they did to overcome the failures can be very illuminating.

Learn from failures

Why should we consider failure instead of just focusing on past successes? Because we learn about other people (and ourselves) by how they (or we) have coped with failure. The thing is, failing isn’t evidence of weakness or incompetence. It’s evidence of trying.

By reflecting on failure, we can learn if someone:

  •         Has the courage to take risks (or is averse to risk-taking)
  •         Learns from mistakes (or is too proud to admit them)
  •         Stretches to learn and grow (or stays safely stagnant)
  •         Takes accountability and actively seeks solutions (or shifts blame)
  •         Can accept defeat (or lives in denial)
  •         Is resilient and seeks new avenues (or doesn’t try because of a fear of failure)

You see, the way folks handle failure demonstrates their character. Whether people are willing to risk failing is important (we recently discussed reasons why it’s important for leaders to find the emotional courage to make mistakes and learn from them).

How leaders, in particular, view failure has implications for businesses and staff. Consider that:

American businessman and inventor Thomas Edison (whose many inventions included the incandescent electric lightbulb, phonograph and motion picture camera) didn’t let failures stop him from continuing his work, saying famously: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

French fashion designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel saw value in failure, saying: “Strength is built by one’s failures, not by one’s successes.”

Finding the courage to risk failure served Thomas J. Watson, the chair and CEO of International Business Machines (IBM) from 1914 to 1956, well. He advised: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

Internationally successful author, screenwriter, and producer J.K. Rowling has said: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

I find it interesting that these highly successful people – from diverse industries, different cities and even different time periods – don’t seem afraid or ashamed of failure. Instead we see from their statements that:

  •         Taking risks means accepting there will be some failure
  •         Failures are learning opportunities
  •         Perseverance is critical
  •         Fear of failing can limit the potential for success

As leaders, we need to remember that how we react to failure (for ourselves and for our teams) can significantly affect the performance of our team members.

Celebrate your failure

We have to learn from and even sometimes celebrate (yes, celebrate!) failure. Here’s how:

Keep the focus on learning. If you focus on the failure and it’s punitive, no one will want to admit they made a mistake. They will either stop trying new things or start hiding the failures. Instead, take opportunities to debrief and discuss what went wrong. This is the opportunity to look for ways to improve the process (with metrics!), examine lessons learned and brainstorm other solutions. “What can we learn from this” is far more powerful than “what did you do wrong?”

Build the framework. If you’re thinking right about now, “I get it but there’s no way I want my team going off in all directions on ill-thought boondoggles,” then build the framework for your team of what is an acceptable risk of failure. Help define the parameters. When is complete failure okay, or even useful, in learning something new? When is some failure okay if there’s a mitigation plan in place? When are you unwilling to accept any attempts to improve (and thus, no acceptance of failure)? If you can define what fits into each category, and then live up to it in how you react to failure, your staff will learn to try.

Feel the feelings. Failing is hard. We’re not trying to pretend it’s okay – or that there shouldn’t be accountability. Certainly, some organizations would rather ignore or punish failure than manage it, but rallying everyone to get back up after being knocked down and focusing on learning from mistakes can make for a stronger and more determined comeback.

Walk the talk. Make sure that positive performance reviews and raises or bonuses are not all tied to successes only. If you want to foster an environment of learning, growth, and innovation, your team has to see that everyone is evaluated for wise effort and not just successful results. Celebrating aspects of failed projects (“we learned some valuable lessons here” or “because of this project we knew to focus on this aspect”) will reinforce the idea of learning and improving.

Try new approaches. Some tech companies give their staff time to work on their own ideas and experiments for new products or services for the company. Other corporations take a cold case approach to failures and encourage staff to revisit them from time to time to see if they come up with solutions or new ideas.

Encourage discussion. When everyone on your team feels it is safe to raise concerns and admit there are problems, it’s easier to give up on something that isn’t working and change direction. There are ways to build a stronger team so that everyone feels comfortable innovating, being accountable and taking risks. An environment that encourages agile thinking can save time, money and resources – and pave the way for innovation and (you guessed it!) success.

Coach’s Questions

How have you reacted to failures in the past for yourself? For your staff? Will your approach to failure change now? What can you do to encourage your team members to take measured risks, accept failures and learn from them?

How your DiSC personality style affects work-life balance

I think most leaders I meet with recognize that work-life balance is an important goal for themselves and their team members.

Most agree that finding work-life balance is directly proportional to job satisfaction, mental health, physical health and retention of team members (people who are happy and healthy will stay with an employer longer and work harder than those who are living to work 24/7!).

So why is achieving work-life balance still a struggle for so many folks?

Why does it still top discussions and priority lists for individuals and organizations?

I think it’s partly because folks just don’t have strategies for achieving work-life balance and partly understanding how your own inherent behaviors affect work-life balance.

Self-awareness is the cornerstone of change. If you can’t see what’s contributing to or motivating certain behaviors, it’s unlikely you’re going to change.

What is DiSC style?

At Padraig, our coaches use a tool called Everything DiSC – both as an assessment tool to help individuals and as a workshop tool for teams and groups. Our regular readers will already be familiar with DiSC, but if you’re new to Padraig, basically this tool helps our clients understand themselves and others better. We all have a style and there is no right, wrong or “best” style.

By understanding your DiSC behavior style (and the styles of other team members, or of customers!), you can manage your interactions and relationships with them better. You gain insight into what motivates each personality and how to manage and communicate in the best way.

Each DiSC style has different strengths and weaknesses – and these all come into play with trying (desperately at times!) to achieve work-life balance.

DiSC style characteristics and work-life balance

Many times folks need reminding – or perhaps even permission – that they are entitled to establish boundaries at work. Having some ideas about HOW to do this can be very helpful.

But WHY you feel you can’t set boundaries may vary according to your DiSC personality style:

  • The Dominant “D” is a take-charge personality, and taking charge means seeing things through. Focused, direct and goal-oriented D styles might be organized at home and at work, but those work goals might keep a D working late. If that’s what it takes, a D will do it – and expect others to do the same to finish what they say they’ll finish on deadline.
  • The Influential “i” thrives on social interaction, loves new ideas and prefers flexibility. An i tends to prioritize volunteer and social engagements inside and outside of work, so balance may be less about making personal life a priority than making time for rest. The i style might be overly sensitive to disapproval from team members or bosses who are working long hours or after hours (or to put a positive spin on it, bosses who are inadvertently pressuring others to work long hours, too!).
  • Going a bit further, the Steady “S” tends toward people-pleasing. They want to make sure others have what they need and are content. They might long for work-life balance but will tend to avoid confrontation and have to work hard at expressing personal ideas (preferring consensus and predictability). The S values relationships and could sacrifice personal wants/needs to align with the majority or to please a corporate culture that makes work-life difficult – even if the relationships at home are important, too.
  • The Conscientious “C” works well independently and tirelessly, skilled at analytical thought and great at problem-solving. The C personality style does tend to get mired in details, which can lead to long hours at work (great for startups and corporations – but a risk factor for burnout personally and for others trying to keep pace). These are the folks who may be less interested in cultivating a wide-reaching personal life but would rather focus on one or two strong personal relationships. However, they are also the folks who can get so distracted by a problem or a challenge, they lose all track of time and forget to check-in or make time for others.

You can see how certain DiSC styles might be their own worst enemy when it comes to work-life balance, putting pressure on themselves to work harder or longer and striving for perfection – or people-pleasing and avoiding any whisper of confrontation if everyone else is working long hours. The behavior style of your boss can also be a challenge to asserting your needs for some work-life balance.

Imagine, for example, a Steady “S” person resolving to be off the clock by six but then caving in when a Dominant “D” boss announces he’s staying late to work on a project and ordering dinner in for everyone who stays to chip in.

Or, think about an Influential “i” team member who feels anxious about a meeting where there was criticism about not responding quickly enough to an important email. Feeling overly sensitive, this person now obsessively checks email all day and after hours to ensure they don’t miss anything again. What’s going to happen to work-life balance now?

When you complete one of our Everything DiSC Assessments and Guides, you’ll understand how to make the most of your strengths and work on improving your weak areas. It helps to understand what motivates you and how you like to communicate so that when you’re dealing with other personality styles you can adapt.

For example, when dealing with a Dominant “D” leader, you’re not going to want to ramble. The D personality style appreciates direct communication and being asked for opinions but cannot stand someone committing to something and then not following through, so don’t beat around the bush. If a D asks you to get something done ASAP, but you’re on your way to your partner’s very important event, say: “I have a commitment tonight, but I can clear tomorrow morning to tackle that. Do you want me to involve X person from X department as well?”

Remember that there are some strategies for achieving work-life balance that are effective for all personality styles. Having a few of these in your toolkit helps you to approach tasks, requests and obligations without sacrificing your personal life and well-being.

Similarly, there are ways to set boundaries at work and know when (and how!) you can say no without losing the respect of your boss, colleagues or team members. The more you practice setting boundaries, the easier it becomes for every DiSC personality style.

Coach’s Questions

How do you feel about your work-life balance right now? How could your own inherent behavior style affect your own work-life balance? What about for others on your team? What would help you make changes to achieve better work-life balance?

“How are you?” “Oh, busy”

If someone asks you how you’re doing, what’s the first word that pops into your mind?

I’m going to bet that it’s, “Busy.”

Often nowadays, that’s what I hear. Not “fine.” Not “great!” Not even, “okay.” Busy is by far the top response – and I know this isn’t some new and unusual aberration for me as an executive coach.

A few years ago, the John Hopkins Health Review discussed “the epidemic of overscheduling” around the globe in an article memorably titled, “The Cult of Busy” (and nothing’s changed it seems!).

Not long after, the venerable periodical The Atlantic published a piece about how busyness has become the status symbol of our time – in North America in particular. It’s not just a popular buzzword; being busy has become synonymous with being important and successful. As the article points out, there was a time that having ample time for recreation and leisure was the goal! Those who were admired for their success and their wealth were those who didn’t have to be busy.

So it’s not surprising that Psychology Today has copious articles about combating the culture of being busy (with advice about how to stop being busy or being addicted to being busy or the need to be busy). It seems on some level there is acknowledgement that being busy isn’t healthy.

And yet, this idea of being busy permeates our culture and it’s taken over not just work life but personal lives, too.

It’s time for us as leaders to shift ourselves from BUSY to PRODUCTIVE.

Not sure what I mean?

You can be busy all day but still not accomplish your goals. For instance, you could run around to endless meetings and work on five different projects and be busy, really busy, but not achieve anything truly important.

Busy can be an outcome of being distracted. For example, you could clean your inbox all day and talk with a few team members, but not get to your goals. And if you don’t have goals, here’s a reminder why setting goals is important.

Busy can be getting a lot of “stuff” crossed off your to-do list but not making any progress toward the most important thing on your list. Some folks get so used to living in a constant state of urgency that they lose sight of what’s urgent versus what’s important. Often we are busy when we’re dealing with urgent issues but we’re productive when we’re dealing with important issues.

In our blog about living in a constant state of urgency, we highlight the Eisenhower matrix as a tool that helps folks determine what is urgent versus what’s important. By assigning tasks to one of four quadrants, you can figure out what’s urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and not urgent and not important (time wasters!). The goal is to spend the majority of your time working on what is important and not urgent (catching important things before they’re urgent – and thus focusing on the big goals!).

Productive might not feel like a LOT has been accomplished but will feel like IMPORTANT progress has been made (and that’s a shift for many of us – to feel good about progress on something significant rather than striking several little things off a long but perhaps less important list).

NOTE: If you like a to-do list and find joy comes from striking things off that list – one big way to shift from busy to productive is to break up the big goals into tasks THAT GET YOU THERE and put those tasks on the list.

Busy can be directly linked to perfectionism. It can be challenging to be productive (even though we’re still busy) if we are striving for perfection – thinking there is only one right way to do something and spending all day researching it, figuring out all the details.

A productive person tends to think, “What do I need to do to get this done?” whereas busy people often think, “What do I need to do to get this just right?”

So, what can we do to move away from being busy to being productive?

1.     Think bigger, then think smaller. Wait, what?

Decide on 1, 2 or 3 big goals – things that when you accomplish them will set you apart, or they will bring you a next step of success, or they will bring you great joy, etcetera.
Focus your to-do list on the tasks that need to happen to achieve goal 1, then the tasks to achieve goal 2, and so on.

2.     Focus on ONE THING AT A TIME. Busy people are multi-taskers. Productive people are focused on one thing at a time.
Now then, in real life you can’t always be focused just on your one thing. I get that. But the other two things productive people are good at are (1) blocking their time and (2) taking breaks.

3.     Blocking your time and taking breaks means setting manageable chunks of time to get things done, with a break after, constantly. So you might set 50 minutes to work on Task X which gets you one step closer to goal 1. Then you might take a 10-minute break and spend 50 minutes focused on Task Z which gets you one step closer to goal 2. Then back to Task X, etcetera. Now, it might not be 50 minutes and 10 minutes for you. Maybe it’s 20 minutes and 5 minutes.

It might mean trying to pay attention for a few days to how long you can focus on one task before needing a break (ie., before wandering off, before opening Facebook, before staring off into space).

You may find that time is different for different tasks.  Maybe you love math and organizing and so you can go HOURS working on a spreadsheet, but get distracted after 15 minutes of writing a report. Or, maybe you’re the opposite and writing in long stretches is easy for you but numbers are easy to ditch.

Blocking time might mean that instead of setting aside an hour to work on that spreadsheet, you set up 3 blocks of 15 minutes, each followed by a five-minute break.  So that’s an hour in your schedule but you don’t block it as an hour; you block it as 15 – 5 – 15 – 5 – 15 – 5. And you stick to that schedule.

4.     Blocking time for things means also controlling your calendar. I personally have probably the worst thing in the world for keeping me focused – a calendar that my clients can schedule themselves into directly. So, to control my calendar, I make sure to block my calendar ahead of time for things I have to focus on and accomplish.

5.     A key component for successfully moving from busy to productive is eliminating distractions. When an interruption could derail your focus (the person at your office door, the phone, emails coming in, your own boredom or distraction) – you ignore that distraction till break time (or, if it’s that person at your door looking to chat – maybe you tell them that they’ll have your attention in X minutes or at X o’clock when you break from the task you’re working on rather than ignore them!). We have discussed all sorts of ways to stay focused in an office of distractions – it is possible!

6.  Know your goals and define your wins. Some of us need external motivation to get us going or keep us going. Delivering Goal 1 might be a huge goal but it’s still in the distant future. We still have many tasks to complete and it seems daunting to get there. Setting smaller wins along the way might help  – especially if you have any sort of attention deficit. So, perhaps you remind yourself you can grab some chocolate almonds, as soon as you finish this task – and not before. Or, you remind yourself how good it’s going to feel to go to see a movie tonight and not think about work  – but you know that will only happen if you push through and finish Task X before you leave for the evening.

Coach’s Questions

How often are you busy rather than productive? What are some things you could do to be more productive? How can you encourage your team members to be productive?