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When We Fail

Certain types of failure — losing our temper, singing off-key, or getting hopelessly lost — are rarely grounds for persecution. In fact, these shortcomings are more often lovable idiosyncrasies — quirks that friends poke fun at while we grin and feign embarrassment.

Certain types of failure — losing our temper, singing off-key, or getting hopelessly lost — are rarely grounds for persecution. In fact, these shortcomings are more often lovable idiosyncrasies — quirks that friends poke fun at while we grin and feign embarrassment.

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And then there’s real failure. The kind of failure that’s neither quirky nor endearing and that should be avoided at all costs. Most people, myself included, must suffer public embarrassment or personal crisis before they examine the root causes of those types of failures. Only after a cataclysmic event — like a divorce or a layoff — do we step back and acknowledge serious shortcomings in our behavior. Perhaps we fear what’s lurking in the dark of our mental closets. Perhaps we just refuse to pause our frantic lives long enough to figure out the source of our behavior. Either way, we’re not helping matters by procrastinating.

For managers, failure smacks especially hard because it adversely affects people beyond our personal spheres of influence. Failure reaches the extended realm of the company, including shareholders and customers.

For example, for several years, I failed to recognize that my management team at Evolutionary Technologies International suffered from negative team dynamics. The unhealthy environment took root and grew from my relationship with Sam (not his real name), whom I worked with longer and more closely than other managers on the team. Because Sam and I were also personal friends, other managers under my supervision believed that they couldn’t criticize Sam or directly confront him without risking my wrath. On the other hand, Sam felt quite comfortable apprising me of others’ bad decisions. Too often — in the interest of speed and openness — I would call a meeting to discuss an issue before talking one-on-one with someone whom Sam had criticized. Such practices made other managers feel that Sam had “ratted” on them and prevented them from talking to me about conflicts that they had with him.

By the time I recognized this pattern, major communication and cooperation problems had already derailed teams within the company and undermined my effectiveness as a leader. My responsibility as a leader was to be even-handed and independent, and to assess opinions in a dispassionate and critical manner. And I had failed at meeting that responsibility.

My mistakes as CEO knocked the wind out of employee morale and adversely affected the company’s performance. When I finally realized what was happening, I had two choices: to blame Sam or acknowledge the failure as my own. I chose the latter and still stand by that decision. The way in which I admitted my faults, however, was not effective.

Instead of briefly acknowledging the company’s mistakes and refocusing efforts on necessary repairs, I publicly acknowledged my failure to the employees and the board, and then stepped back and allowed the management group to operate independently. I abdicated my authority as CEO, and the situation grew worse. When conditions became so dire that the company faced a serious meltdown, I was forced to reassert myself as a fair but neutral leader. Only then did the management dynamics begin to improve.

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Facing failure and acknowledging shortcomings are necessary steps to personal growth. But to achieve personal and professional success, we must also change the behavior that led to those shortcomings — which requires facing some basic fears that have likely shaped our personality for years. Often, such fears stem from a deep sense of inadequacy and the belief that we will be punished if others see our weaknesses.

To transcend failure, we must question our instinctive responses as if they were enemy soldiers invading the home camp. Then we must analyze our previous behavior and decide which instincts we should obey and which we should not. Self-inspection is difficult, and in conducting it, we may make mistakes that lead to even more problems as leaders. But if we don’t embrace failure as an opportunity for growth, we risk repeating our mistakes and failing ourselves and our colleagues beyond the point of forgiveness.

More columns by Katherine Hammer.

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