Of the many issues leaders have to address, failure has to be one of the most challenging. No doubt this is why we love sharing motivational quotes about failure, like this one from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
It’s easy to see why these quotes are so compelling as they almost transform failure into a positive experience that propels us to keep pushing ahead.
Perhaps this is why the idea of “failing fast” has garnered so much attention – that while failure is inevitable, it doesn’t mean we can’t get over it quickly.
Of course, the problem with these quotes and this notion of “failing fast” is that they address a singular aspect of failure. Namely, the easier part of failure – one where we learn from our mistakes to become stronger.
The truth is the hardest part of failure is grappling with those feelings of not living up to what we thought we could do or be [Share on Twitter].
Indeed, what makes failure so painful is how it makes us second-guess ourselves – our knowledge, our insights, our perceptions, and with it, whether we really have what it takes to succeed.
But the answer to this is not simply to tell our employees to “fail fast”. Rather, it’s to shift the conversation we have with them about it, and consequently, how they themselves frame this emotional experience and what they’ll do about it.
To illustrate what I mean, I’d like to share a personal story of how I helped my daughter Malaika recently through her own moment of grappling with failure to find her way back.
For the last few years, Malaika has been pushing herself to not only achieve a high academic record, but to be very active in various extracurricular activities, including being elected this year as Student Council President.
Coming off last year with an over 90% average and a diverse range of extracurricular activities, she was eager to get that acceptance letter for the Health Sciences program when she graduates from high school next month.
A few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon, Malaika got the news that she was on a waiting list to get in the program, while a few of her classmates who had slightly higher grades but no extracurricular activities were given immediate acceptance.
She came home from school that day completely dejected, trying to hold back her tears of frustration as she blurted in exasperation what was the point of working so hard and being so active in school if all she got for it was being on a waiting list.
After giving her space to vent her frustration and her fears of not getting in, I looked at her and said for the next two days we’re only going to do one thing – “we’re going to own the suck.”
And that’s exactly what we did – over that weekend, whenever she needed to share her frustrations over not doing better, or her fears of what will she do if she doesn’t get accepted, I’d just remind her that’s it’s okay to feel crappy because “today, we’re owning the suck”.
But at the end of that second day, I went over to Malaika and told her “Okay, for the last two days, we owned the suck. Now … what are you going to do about it?”
While she didn’t have an answer at that moment, about an hour later she came to me and told me how she had some ideas of what she could do. She could apply to a similar program in another educational institution. Or she can go into her second option and re-apply during the winter semester and do the required courses over the following summer to catch up.
In the end, Malaika came up with three different tactics to give her options of what to do, which ultimately proved to be unnecessary as two weeks later, she got word that she had been accepted into the Health Sciences program after all.
In sharing this story, what I hope to demonstrate is that while it’s understandable that we’d want to soften the blow of failure, sometimes the best thing we can do is “own the suck” [Share on Twitter].
That we give our employees – and sometimes, ourselves – the permission to accept the negative emotions that swirl around us in those moments of failure.
After all, this is what emotional intelligence is all about – it’s not just deciphering our employees’ emotional state, but empathizing with what they’re going through. Of what their reality is and how that’s impacting them, not just in terms of their productivity, but in terms of how it’s affecting them personally.
Not only does this give our employees the emotional space they need to deal with the pain that comes with failure, but as I did with Malaika, it sets the stage for us to help them gain clarity about what they can do about it going forward.
I’ve written before that while we might admire the achievements of successful people, it’s only through learning about their failures that they become relatable because we all know what that feels like, and in particular, how it makes us question what we’re capable of and what value we can create.
That’s why when it comes to failure, we can’t simply gloss over the pain. Sometimes, we just need to own it to help us truly grow and become stronger going forward [Share on Twitter].
Perhaps Brené Brown said it best when she wrote “When you numb your pain, you also numb your joy.”
As much as we might be conditioned to block out those emotional dark skies that failure casts around us, as leaders, we need to give our employees that space to live in that moment, to empathize with them that yes, this hurts. And as I told my daughter, that in that moment, we’re going to own the suck.
And by giving employees space to own the outcome of failure, they will find within themselves the resolve to do something about it [Share on Twitter].
In so doing, we not only create conditions for them to ultimately learn from this failure, but we help them discover their own courage, their own story. A narrative that will not only fuel their drive to press ahead, but will serve them well the next time they encounter failure, especially after seeing how we truly have their backs in wanting them to succeed and thrive under our leadership.