Failure has no shortage of platitudes singing its praises. It’s the best teacher, of course. We’re supposed to “fail forward” and “fail fast.” Fall down seven times, and get up eight. Paraphrasing U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, it’s better to do mighty things, even checkered by failure, than to have never tried at all.
But the next time you make a big work-related blunder or your project crashes, take note of exactly how many people rush forth to congratulate you on the amazing learning experience you just had. It’s more likely that you’re going to be managing negative feelings and fallout from the failure.
“The idea that we should embrace failure, and that failure is a great teacher, is in many ways in direct conflict with the way we actually respond to failure,” says Susan Baroncini-Moe, CEO of Indianapolis-based Baroncini-Moe Executive Coaching, LLC. The competing expectations or ideas about behavior related to failure can make us feel worse–like we’re failing at failing, she adds.
Benefiting from failure’s lessons is a process, says Elizabeth Perea, PhD, owner of New York City-based T3 Training, a sales and performance training consultancy. To go through it and come out the other side stronger, it’s best to follow some established steps.
Manage the emotions
One of the most damaging beliefs about failure is that you must immediately embrace it, says Baroncini-Moe. “No, no, no. You start by feeling your feelings. That’s the first step in the process to bouncing back,” she says. The first step she advises for her clients is to “revel in the pain.” When you try to brush off the very real emotions and insecurities that can arise, they will eventually resurface, she says.
But don’t do anything rash when you’re in this emotional state. She points to research from staffing firm Robert Half, which found that 67% of managers report an increase in absenteeism or resignations after a negative performance review. Allowing yourself time to feel the humiliation, embarrassment, anger, or other emotions that come with failing–making a big mistake, receiving a negative performance evaluation, or getting fired, for example–helps you get beyond the failure faster, she says.
Map out what went wrong
Even as you deal with the emotional component, start thinking about what went wrong, Perea says. Did you ease up on your attention to detail? Did you take on too much or a project that stretched you beyond your ability? Were there issues that you couldn’t control that contributed to the failure?
Perea once worked with a real estate agent who had a big deal fall through. “It was awful,” she recalls. So she helped the agent map out the relationship from the beginning. The agent traced the strong and weak points and honestly evaluated her role in what happened, asking herself tough questions. It wasn’t an easy exercise, but it helped her spot similar situations in the future and avoid them, she says.
Sometimes, writing in a journal about the failure can help you see exactly how it played out, and how to prevent it from happening again, says leadership development expert Bill Wooditch, author of Fail More: Embrace, Learn, and Adapt to Failure as a Way to Success. You may also find that simply listing the factors that contributed to the failure can be helpful in recognizing and addressing them. As you identify the issues and gain some perspective, you may even see them in a different light.
Create a failure-prevention protocol
Once you’ve mapped out what went wrong, you can create a system to prevent it from happening again. Did the project go wrong because certain factors were ignored? Did someone avoid a tough conversation that would have clarified the situation? As you unearth the weak points in your process, you can create a checklist, system, or other formalized process to prevent it from happening again.
Failure’s impact can sometimes be mitigated if you build in safety nets to your plans, projects, and goals. You need stretch assignments to grow, but integrating checkpoints helps you manage the outcome, Wooditch says. Determine your measurement criteria, including project milestones or other ways to measure your success. Then, if you see you’re veering off course, recruit the help you need to make things right, such as enlisting team members or supervisors or asking for additional help or resources to keep things on track.
Share what you learned
As you make your way through failure and learn how to avoid the same issue in the future, share what you learned, Wooditch encourages. Doing so does a few things. First, it shows your managers that you’re actively seeking to prevent the situation from happening again, which helps restore trust. In addition, sharing your experience can help build a culture of learning in the organization and may help shape others’ attitudes about failure. And if those around you see that you have learned from mistakes or mishaps in the past and are trying to help them avoid the same, you may earn more respect than you realize.
“Everyone makes mistakes–everyone. So the difference is, are you learning from them? It’s the only way you can improve performance. You have to take a clear, focused approach to what you want, and build from the foundations of failure,” he says.