Dealing with failure at work

In a run of different posts lately from various bloggers, there’s been something to consider about the way we work which has been bugging me. Doug Shaw recently talked about how an old teacher told him he would fail, and what this meant for him. David Goddin picked up on this and wrote about how school children are meant to make mistakes and they shouldn’t be punished for this. And here’s where I really start to get stuck. Workplaces do not support positive behaviours.

Quite a statement for someone in L&D? Well let’s narrow that focus some. Two things become paramount when you think about what is it that drives organisations. Wealth, and the fear of failure. The adage goes something like… “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. And this is what I fear. For all the wealth of knowledge available on wellbeing, diversity, positive psychology and engagement, the challenge isn’t in selling these in to organisations. The challenge lies in making organisations do better because there are better ways to act.

Many organisations already do a good job of trying to help the work environment be a better place. L&D plans, CSR plans, management training plans, objectives and appraisal plans – all good stuff. But they’re not rewarded in the right ways. When it comes to motivation, reward and recognition, we’ve just got our hat on backwards, and have had it so for many years. Complete project X successfully and you’ll be rewarded with a bonus. Achieve Objectives S through to Z and you’ll get a bonus. Implement program B and D and you’ll get a bonus. And if you don’t, you get nothing, your credibility will drop like a lead balloon, you’ll likely not get selected for other projects, you’ll be branded a failure and your name will be mud for a while. So, do a good job, ok? Wow, that’s a shit storm you never considered having to deal with.

So what would happen if this were thought about differently? Let’s take some things into consideration:

– companies want profit first and foremost

– they want people to be successful so they can make this profit

– they need to invest in people in order to help them get successful

Ok, I can accept those things are a given and won’t change. So what does need to change? The way we fundamentally deal with failure at work. Bob’s been given a project to deliver. He’s had all the right perceived resources he needs to make it a success and doesn’t deliver. There is a school of thought that will argue that he needed to have been set up for success before the project began/during the project. But let’s assume that happened, and still he failed. Then what?

Response A would say – get him on an improvement plan, don’t give him another project until he’s capable again. Response B would say this. We are all capable of taking someone through the mill and berating them on what a bad job they did and what impact it had to the business. What needs to happen is not a run down of all the good things/bad things that happened. What needs to happen is Bob has to be given a chance to do some scenario planning using the same project, with a coach and together they go through as if it were a fresh project. This would likely take between 1-3 days of coaching in this respect. And the learning that Bob would go through would be immense. Feedback about the seriousness of the failure would form part of this, but is not the focus.

I’m not saying this is the only solution to dealing with failure. With some more banging of heads, I’m sure we can come up with more options. But hopefully it illustrates the point I am trying to make.

If you then consider the influence this has on the wider team, then you’re looking at a highly positive transaction taking place. Team members would see that Bob was given responsibility to accomplish something. They see that he hasn’t delivered. And they see that as opposed to being beaten up for it, he’s encouraged to learn from it to do better next time. Wait a moment, that can’t happen, can it? You have to have the fear that if you don’t perform you’ll be sacked don’t you? Well I say yah boo to that.

And if you want to talk engagement, you’re looking at a far more effective way of engaging and motivating a workforce because you’re truly showing that you’re investing in them. The bad times are just as important as the good times, and how we deal with them is what defines us as an organisation, and as a people.

We know we learn from mistakes. We also know that when you’re motivated to do work, you will produce a better quality of work than if you’re not.  I also know I’m talking in ideals above, and the likelihood of this forming reality would take serious commitment and investment. In these austere times, that won’t happen. Even during the boom times it probably won’t happen. But here’s what I do know. Whatever ‘it’ is – isn’t happening now.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

6 thoughts on “Dealing with failure at work”

  1. Love the post Sukh. A couple of things bouncing around in my head as I read this…

    We talk of ideals as though they won’t or can’t happen, yet you see teachers (& others) living those ideals. I think perhaps society needs to see ideals more as a way of life rather than something we would do but can’t.

    From a commercial perspective, it’s surprising that no-one properly “hedges” their risk either in projects or even development programmes. If there is a commercial consequence of failure, wouldn’t it be worth “trading” part of that risk value for meaningful support? Maybe it’s me but there’s something very attractive in this proposition…

    1. Good points made here David. I think that society does live in terms of the ideals. I think the challenge we face is that organisations don’t actually want those ideals to be manifest in the workplace. Not truly.

      And there should be some trade off at play. Again, it just won’t happen, yet. There’s too much importance and value placed on profit and revenue making efforts. Investment in development is a nice to have and has always been seen as a perk as opposed to being an explicit part of the employee contract, and of the psychological contract.

  2. Nice post Sukh, of course I’m biased 🙂 ‘It’ is many things.

    ‘It’ is encouragement. ‘It’ is practice. ‘It’ is learning by doing. ‘It’ is immediate constructive feedback. ‘It’ is co-created. ‘It’ is simple, and not easy. ‘It’ is love.

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