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.


Assume Innocence

Some weeks back I wrote about seeking to understand where someone is coming from before making yourself understood. In essence it was a post about empathy, but I was also talking about brooching taboo topics.

There is another side to this. If we are to seek to first understand we must also listen to what someone has to say. Mel Buckenham wrote a post not long ago about how we listen. To build on that, there is something about the message we are hearing and the assumption we’re making about our audience.

Working with someone recently on their understanding of how to think of an audience they remarked “oh yes, we should always assume our audience is stupid.” This wasn’t meant in a rude or derogatory way, but I don’t like the phrase. You’re immediately taking the power away from the person you’re talking with, and that just doesn’t bode well. It may not be harmful but it certainly won’t be positive or encouraging a relationship.

Instead, I think we should start from a point of assuming innocence. It’s a simple turn of phrase that gives new direction and focus for the person we’re speaking with. There does seem to be far too many who will assume cynicism and indeed stupidity with no hesitation. I understand it, but certainly done abide it.

Assuming innocence sits nicely with the Intelligent Behaviours theory I’ve spoken about before. If we think about the other person as being innocent it allows so much more interactivity and flow of discussion. It also allows you to ask questions and point out flaws without seeming negative. It involves actively changing your thinking so that the language you use becomes more collegiate and constructive. You share the power of the conversation because you haven’t already taken it away with your own assumptions.

Top tips for dealing with Top Tips

These successful guru types – they’re there for a reason. To annoy me. To annoy me with their lists of wisdom. They are so wise they understand that in order to be successful you have to give people lists. Because that is all people understand. Soundbites. I’d like a list on developing a killer social media strategy please. Sure, go click here. If that didn’t work for you, then try re-clicking it. It works better the second time round. Honest.

Are we really that simple? Are human beings really that pathetic? We must be, we seem to lap up this stuff. Most of us are lazy. We want someone else to do the hard work so we don’t have to. And we’ll pay you to do it too. And when you’ve figured out the meaning of life, just make sure it’s in bullet point form. You know who mastered that one? Moses. Ten Commandments handed down by God himself. Genius. From the get go, even God knew we were simplistic humans who need guidance with bullet points.

Whatever happened to our brains? Our brains that are capable of intelligent thought, reacting to stimuli instantaneously, create complete frameworks within which to work, process language, social signals and more besides. Or the wisdom of the ages passed down through complete vast texts that people are still deciphering to this day? My facetious comment about the Ten Commandments aside, scholars to this day are studying the single most popular book in existence, the Bible.

But these gurus, they want to promote their knowledge to their assembled followers.

“Hark, for I have seen the truth. Layeth before you are the rules for engagement for carrying out an interview successfully. Follow these foolproof guidelines, that I have slaved over for ten years, and have taken instruction from the Powers that Be – Wikipedia. Hallowed be my name, my kingdom in Chelsea.”

And their lists, oh how they piss me off. Fine, fight fire with fire I say.

  1. Take any list you read and apply a bucket load of shit salt. Yes it seems like it makes sense, but anyone worth their salt (see what I did there) will not belittle you by creating a list to follow.
  2. Any point on a list needs better context to help you understand what you need to do. ‘Maintain eye contact’ is useful, but what about cultural differences? What about comfort levels? What if someone has a physical condition with their eyes?
  3. The lists are generic and meant to apply to everyone. Therefore, they apply to no-one. Which is the single biggest problem with horoscopes. Read about Derren Brown and horoscopes for more on this. What it comes down to is the generic use of the language. ‘You can create rapport by mirroring body language’.
  4. To get true insight into behaviour, or any new way of working, you need to know the context in which things have been developed. Quite often the list is in isolation. Such a shame for could be such good information.
I’ve written before about Intelligent Behaviours. Having an Intelligent Behaviour mindset means that you can look at a top ten list and decide for yourself what makes sense, and how you should interpret it. If, you decide the top tips are actually useful, then seek out the person that wrote them for better insight, or talk to someone who you know understands these things well.

Encouraging Positive Energy Networks

Today at work, look around you. I often make this call to action when writing. Take note of who in your environment is helping others to achieve. Who around you is helping others to succeed. Who can you see that just brought a smile to someone? Who have you seen who needs a pick-me-up? Who have you seen that just looks like a misery guts? Who around you is bouncing around with energy and enthusiasm.?

For the moment, disregard those who are being miserable. Take note instead of those making a difference to other people’s lives. They’re the people I enjoy watching and connecting with. They’re the ones I find energising and motivating. They’re the ones who make a workplace fun. But surely they do a lot of other good stuff except for being a fun place to be?

They encourage others to learn and do better. They give support openly and willingly. They listen genuinely and without distraction. They ask questions because they’re interested not because they have an agenda. They have conversations that seem fun and interesting. Either way, others are attracted to their conversations. They are sought out by people because they’re a joy to be around. They are the ones who wonder around and have meaningful conversations with those they meet.

Sounds all joyful and wonderful doesn’t it? So here’s the tangible benefits of what they help others to do. They encourage ideas and creation of answers so that they’re not getting stuck into ruts with problems and issues. They make things happen because of the richness of the relationships they have that increase the discretionary effort those around them put in. They know enough about what’s going on around them that if they don’t know the answer, they can direct people to the right place. They help calm situations where tensions may be fraying and possible friction exists.

So what point am I trying to make? In life, we need these people. They help us to learn about ourselves, and to learn about others. On a grand scale you can take the mighty efforts of people like Nelson Mandela or Ang Sun Suu Kyi to see how they impact and influence others. On a small scale, you can look for those around you.

In the work environment, these are the ones who will help the business grow and succeed. They won’t have all the right qualities you’re searching for. But there’s things you can do to help them succeed. We all have some sort of performance management system in place, and some may have plans in place around talent management and the likes. But, and this is a big but, we shouldn’t have to rely on those processes to help these people succeed. They’ll find ways to succeed on their own. They just need people to help guide and direct them.

Let’s think differently

Last year I started some musings about needing a business set of philosophies that help guide and direct behaviour in working environments. I called it Intelligent Behaviours, and my follow up post on behaving intelligently (yes, I know, not very clever post titles). I’d like to venture some further thoughts on this thinking.

In those posts I talked about what it means to think about Intelligent Behaviours, and subsequently how it relates to topics such as Diversity, and managers thinking about absence management differently. So let’s discuss what this could mean for HR. And I include all parts of HR in this.

I should highlight that the idea behind Intelligent Behaviours is to encourage and foster a future way of thinking. This is not an attack on what’s happening now, more a desire to see things done differently. That’s not restricted to HR by any means. Every business area could do well thinking about this. And I’ll get round to discussing every business area. Today, simply, I start with HR.

So, relax for a moment, this isn’t about a new competency framework, engagement strategy, or new fangled policy on performance management. This is about saying – what does thinking intelligently about the situation you are facing tell you? And then how can you behave accordingly to that? My line of thinking is this – we have company policies for pretty much everything, and in honesty, everyone knows a policy is a big pile of nonsense. It’s only purpose is to have some fallback mechanism that says “oh you can’t act in that way because the policy says so”. In other words “you and I are both so infantile, neither of us trusts the other, and here’s the piece of paper that proves it”.

How, with any reason, and with all the will in the world, can we display employee engagement, if your first port of call is to have a policy or process in place? Think about it. Before you’ve even started something exciting, you’re already creating contingencies and thinking of mitigating circumstances. And then when you’ve launched into it, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be ‘effective’ and nothing more. Forget engaging, or even better, ‘social’, it just becomes – standard/best practice.

Why have we allowed ourselves to do this? Well, aside from the fact there’s a horrid litigious culture encouraged by daft no win no fee claim companies, and aside from the fact as a nation we are more concerned with productivity than we are innovation, HR has just become a safe place to be really. Sure, there’s exciting things happening out there like talent management programmes, OD initiatives galore, high fliers programmes and the like, but they’re just the emporer’s clothes dressed up as something new. As a profession, we’ve become too transfixed with policies and process, and don’t think enough about just letting things happen.

Hold on! I’m not advocating a free for all workplace with no guidance. I’m advocating better thinking about why we’re doing the work we’re doing. And I’m certainly not talking changing the rules when it comes to complicated arrangements like Union discussions or redundancies or mergers and acquisitions. Although, I think we can use Intelligent Behaviours to moderate those in different ways too. Let’s take some examples.

Let go of the tendency to say or default to “I know the answer to this, our policy says X.” Instead, encourage discussions on “I know how to solve your problem, and it’s easy”. My take on this is people don’t care about what the policy states, they just want to know a problem can be solved. Also, reject the urge to say “let’s check the policy on that”. You’re only encouraging a culture of deference to a piece of paper. I want confidence in you, not the process or the policy.

Let go of the tendency to follow best practice, or follow the old edict of “it’s what we’ve always done”. Are you so uninspired by your daily routine that the best you can resolve to do is “right, that’s a grievance, let’s pull out the ACAS guidance and ensure we don’t fuck up the process”. Really? Is that what you care about? Or do you care about resolving the situation as amicably as you can? Or better, do you care about leading a discussion where both parties ultimately leave the discussion with better appreciation of what happened, what needs to happen next, and assurances they will carry on?

Let go of the tendency to be critical and shooting down ideas because you think you are politically sensitive to the culture. In others words, you haven’t got the gumption to champion the idea proposed to you, nor the faith in that person to deliver it, and you are just looking for a get out clause “it’s a good idea, but Bob won’t like it because of this, and Bill has had an ulterior motive of that”. Let it happen. See what the result is. Give the right coaching and advice that will produce the desired result.

You can call this common sense, you can call it blue sky thinking, you can call it bollocks thinking. Personally I think we’ve just become too focused on “the way we’ve always done things” and that does not foster intelligence in our thinking, nor in our behaviour. Hungry now, need to go get some lunch.

>If you don’t like your situation, change the situation

>I’m going through stuff at the moment, both professionally and personally. It’s all a bit frustrating as essentially I don’t feel useful.

This isn’t about self-doubt, I’m doing a good job of stuff, and I know I am, I’m just not feeling useful. And that’s annoying. Keeping this to the confines of the work situation, there’s things which need to happen which I think I need other resources to enable a good job of stuff. And in fairness I’ve been a bit reluctant to be pro-active about making them happen.
Those of you following me on Twitter will know I’m running a course on ‘Making a Personal Impact’. Part of this means letting others know about being pro-active. And immediately I’m left with the thought, I’m not practising what I preach.
So here it is. I’ve known I need to do better, and I could just bitch about what I’m not happy about, but that’s not going to get me anywhere. I can change the situation though so it meets my needs. How? By taking a look at each of the things I’m currently doing which I think are effective, and evaluating how truly effective those things are.
I hate self-evaluating. It’s a pain in the arse. But that’s the thing about change, you have to start with an evaluation. Only then can you move forward. You can’t change the situation unless you have a good assessment of what you’re doing now.
And when I say change, I don’t mean make sweeping changes. Look for the things that have meaning for you. Do the things that will enable the change you’re looking for. You’re responsible for what happens in your life. Listen to those around you. Hear what’s going on. Understand it. Question it. If you can act, then act. If you can’t. it’s because you haven’t understood the real issue.
And I don’t mean change the situation in a sweeping or tangential move. You made a conscious decision to enter your situation. You thought/believed/hoped it would mean something new/interesting/challenging for you. If it’s not, you can make it into what you want it. But you have to be the one that does it. No one else will make it happen for you. And I don’t mean bulldoze through disrupting or damaging people in your path. Make it meaningful for everyone concerned.
I’ve written before about Intelligent Behaviour, and this is a another important facet of what that behaviour looks like. Act intelligently so that the behaviour you are expecting is what you are displaying.