Failure In The Workplace

Federal Liberal leader Stephane Dion admitted to the nation this week that he “failed” in his bid to win the election. And so he is resigning.

That was failure writ large. But what about lower-profile failures in the workplace – everything from a botched project to something that leads to outright firing? Workplace failure is very common. Estimates say that at least 50 percent of executives fail at work, a figure that challenges the assumption that an executive’s career is a trajectory of continual uninterrupted achievement.

Failure can stalk executives and workers alike. The experience can be devastating. According to researchers, Nancy Newton of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Chara Khanna at the Human Resources Organization and Jennifer Thompson at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, failing on the job is almost like experiencing a death.

In a recent article in the Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, the researchers note that workers who failed in some way experience denial at first followed by anger, bargaining to regain control, depression and finally acceptance. They grapple with shock, fear, anger, blame, shame and despair at having failed to meet performance or professional expectations.

If workers feel a personal sense of responsibility for the outcome of a project or role, they are more likely to experience feelings of failure when things go wrong at work. Workplace failures are characterized by the dashing of certain hopes and expectations for success in situations in which the worker feels responsible. They also involve a serious test of the worker’s abilities, knowledge, skill and competence.

Newton, Khanna and Thompson identify four factors that contribute to our understanding of personal failure at work:

1. Philosophical Orientation
The emphasis in the Western world on individual responsibility places the burden of failure squarely on the worker’s shoulders. Workers are presumed in control of their destinies and as such make decisions that affect the course of their working lives. This emphasis leads to the pairing of personal worth with workplace success. If you are a success at work, the thinking goes, then you are a successful person. Conversely, being unable to succeed at work means you are lacking in some way—you lack motivation, intelligence or enough effort in this understanding of how failure occurs. Unfortunately this bias towards extreme personal responsibility precludes other possible explanations for workplace failure.

2. External Factors
Placing the burden of responsibility for failures at work on the individual doesn’t account for the fact that business success is not entirely under worker control. In fact, many workplace failures can be attributed to an interaction of market changes and strategy and management problems. The individual worker or manager’s ability to control these factors is limited. Any analysis of a workplace failure should account for these factors-marketplace conditions, business strategy, leader competence and personal characteristics.

3. Being Set Up to Fail

In some cases, the cards are stacked against a worker or manager before they even embark on a project or take the role. For example, a small company identifies the need to hire a marketing strategist who can create an overall marketing strategy for the business. The new hire is qualified for the job and eager to move forward but finds himself mired in busy work only tangentially related to the role for which he was hired. The actual job does not fit the one the new hire posted for and he is stymied at every turn.

Another example includes the plight of many female board members. Researchers found that women were more likely to be given these positions after the company performed badly in the months leading up to the appointment. Hence the women executives had to “prove” themselves in tougher conditions than might have been the case for male peers.

4. Personal Traits
A workers’ self esteem can play a large role in how they cope with a failure and the degree to which they succeed in business. Workers and managers with high self esteem and a high sense of personal effectiveness are less likely to fail. This is due to their confidence in their abilities and willingness to apply sustained effort to ensure a positive outcome. These workers are also more likely to take risks and succeed.

But that’s not always true. Those who take more risks also face more chances of failure, yet their confidence and perseverance enable them to succeed in some riskier situations. They tend to be able to judge how long they should continue an activity in the face failure and how to evaluate their alternatives. On the flip side, people with high self esteem can set unachievable goals and persist at them despite clear evidence that the goal in unattainable.

Workers and executives with high self esteem tend to increase their risk taking behaviours especially when failure looms. Ironically, the personality traits that lead to success – risk taking, optimism, confidence, incisiveness and self-promotion – have been cited as flaws that have led to executive failure. This can occur when unnecessary risks are taken, or when optimism and confidence lead to difficulty assessing one’s own and others abilities. Quick decision-making can become impulsiveness under duress and self promotion looks like a lack of insight, when humility in the face of a defeat is a better course of action.

Workplace failure can occur for a myriad of reasons. Understanding what contributes to workplace failure is the first step in grappling with this common but painful situation. In our next column, we will describe how to recover from a workplace failure.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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