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You Failed – Now What? 4 Ways to Learn from Failure

by Stefanie Mockler on

How appropriate is it to use the “F” word in the workplace? From our perspective, it’s not only appropriate, it’s also incredibly necessary.

To be clear, we’re talking about the word failure.

From a young age, we’re told to “learn from our mistakes” or “it’s ok to fall, as long as you pick yourself back up.” But like many things, this is easier said than done. Failure can feel like the end of the world, and as often as we hear these clichés about failure—and as much as we understand them to be true—they don’t come with a framework that allows us to actually follow the advice.

Combine a lack of framework with the fact that failure can feel like the endpoint in a process, and you’ve got yourself quite the difficult situation. You wonder: How will I ever come back from this? How can I possibly admit this to my colleagues? But these don’t have to be the only reactions. Of course, you can take a little time to pick yourself up and dust off the hurt, but then it’s time to learn.

From a leadership perspective, it’s particularly important to see failure as the beginning of something better, rather than just the outcome of a mistake. If something goes wrong on a larger scale, leaders must deal with the aftermath. In these situations, shifting ones’ mindset from disappointment to growth and learning makes a significant difference for future performance.

Plus, there’s a lot to be said for leaders who can gracefully, but authentically and openly, admit their failures, and then communicate exactly how the organization will overcome the situation.

We all fail at something at some point. The key is to use failures as a chance to become better. Consider the following 4 suggestions to deal with (and, importantly, learn from) failure.

1. TAKE OWNERSHIP OVER THE SITUATION

Admitting that something was a failure means taking the blame. As a result, we tend to (unconsciously) look to place the blame on something external as a way of denying our own missteps. Often, this can be another person (e.g., a colleague), or something we’ve deemed “out of our control” (e.g., market conditions, or organizational politics).

Consider this thought process: “I really bombed that presentation. If the IT crew would have provided the right equipment, then things would have gone so much better.”

The problem with this type of thinking is that it places the reason for your failure somewhere else. The second that happens, you’ve eliminated any possibility of learning from the experience.

Now, consider this alternative: “What a bummer that the technology didn’t work for that presentation. Next time, I’m going to arrive at least 30 minutes early, so I have time to set things up and identify any issues before my presentation.”

This line of thinking allows you to learn something useful that you can apply in similar situations moving forward. Sure, it’s frustrating that the technology didn’t work out – but there are things you can do to counteract and plan for those problems in the future

2. REFRAME FAILURES AS LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

When a situation doesn’t go as planned, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Was this preventable? If so, what could have been done differently to lead to a more desired outcome?
  • If I find myself in a similar situation in the future, what approach will I take to ensure history does not repeat itself?
  • Why do I consider this to be such a disaster? Do others agree?
  • Who can I reach out to for advice and support?
3. LOOK FOR THE POSITIVE

Okay, so you recently failed. And it was a biggie. But what about all of the successes you’ve had in the recent past? We often spend so much time mulling over things that didn’t go right that we forget to spend time celebrating the things that do. We’re not suggesting you sweep failures under the rug, but don’t forget to consider them in relation to all of the things that you’ll done really well. Maintaining this perspective will help you examine the failure productively.

4. CONSIDER THE “BIGGER PICTURE”

We all mess up. No one is perfect and, often, when things seem like the end of the world, they’re truly not. We can get so caught up in the day-to-day that we forget to take a step back and consider what our mistake means in the grand scheme of things. Take a quick pulse of the situation to ascertain what the broader impact is. Use that understanding to mine the most learning out of the situation, and address any run-off issues caused by the failure. Consider the following:

  • What are the implications of this situation?
  • Is there anything I can do to prevent this from having a downstream impact?
  • Who (or what) else might this have affected? Should I loop anyone in they’re not blindsided?

 

Ultimately, our goal here is to minimize the negative responses that all too often lead us to avoid discussing the “F” word, and allow us to reframe failures for what they are – a learning opportunity. Now that we’re armed with some practical, actionable ways to become stronger after failing, tell us:

When was the last time you failed at work?

And most importantly, what did you learn from that situation?  

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