Recovering From Failure

fear of failingRecovering from a major professional failure, defeat or setback is no mean feat. But it can be done.

In our last column, we discussed what constitutes a failure and the emotional turmoil that typically follows. As dire as a professional failure may seem, it can be negotiated successfully. To recover well from a failure is difficult yet surprisingly, can be a rewarding experience. According to researchers Nancy Newton at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Charu Khanna at the Human Resources Research Organization and Jennifer Thompson at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, the worker must recognize his failure and manage the emotional consequences so that the experience can be used as a learning opportunity.

There are three steps to getting through a failure experience with your dignity, self-respect and sense of accomplishment intact:

1. Stop
The first step is to realize that you are experiencing a failure. While it may be clear that you have been unsuccessful in landing the deal or finishing the project on time and on budget, it is sometimes difficult to discern when a failure has occurred or is occurring. For example, as an executive, you are getting signals that people are losing confidence in you, a series of mistakes has occurred and now your boss is saying he is “concerned”. At this juncture, it may be hard to determine what is happening: “Do I continue trying to pull this back on track?” or “Do I say that it’s gotten beyond me and I have to admit defeat and start a clean-up?” Knowing when to quit can be a challenge. Yet, it is important to be able to admit defeat to minimize both your losses and the company’s. Recognizing a failure is like acknowledging a death. It means understanding that the end has come. You must now come to terms with this fact. It is difficult to recognize that you have failed. Accurately assessing what has happened is important.

Workplace failure is usually the result of an accumulation of decisions rather than one major misstep. Upon reflection, signs of failure can be identified – poor performance that wasn’t amenable to change, slow responses to external market data or an inability to hear negative feedback or an unwillingness to examine the self or heed one’s own instincts. Because every failure contains elements of success – the third quarter went well or the new hire seemed to get things moving – it can be hard to judge if a little more effort might not have won the day. Nevertheless, continuing to struggle in a no-win situation can deplete one’s confidence, making decision-making and problem-solving harder.

A sign that you may be facing imminent failure is if you find yourself withdrawing from others and failing to take their advice when it’s given. Ensuring that you talk to detractors as well as supporters is key. Learning all you can about the predicament you are in is also worthwhile. Gather data and ask questions. Many times your boss or a close colleague may be indicating that all is not well. It is important to stop and take solid stock at that point.

2. Restore
By the time you begin to realize that a failure has occurred, you may be exhausted, emotionally depleted and angry. Yet there may also be a sense of relief. This is especially true when you call a halt to the somewhat desperate, frantic or over-absorbed activity in which you were engaged as you struggled to salvage the situation.

High achievers will struggle with self esteem at this time and may attempt to bolster their confidence by promoting themselves or failing to enlist help in order to take credit for the imminent success they believe is around the corner.

It is important to resist the temptation to talk oneself up at this time. It will appear that you are out of touch with what’s going on and your judgment will be questioned. Restoring your self esteem at this time means taking charge of the failure versus continuing to push for an elusive successful outcome. By taking charge of the situation you find yourself in, you no longer deny reality but you begin to give yourself a chance to regroup.

Be aware of your emotions and don’t avoid them. It is natural to feel shame, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation and anger. The intensity and degree to which you feel these things will depend on your personality. People who tend to blame themselves more for failure as opposed to external circumstances tend to feel more shame. Those who blame “the market”, or external factors will feel more anger. If you find yourself feeling guilty, this is a good sign because workers who feel remorse tend to focus on what they can learn from the experience.

3. Learn
While it might seem trite or difficult to view a failure as a “learning opportunity” when you are fighting for your job, self respect or reputation, it is a chance to find out about yourself so that you can potentially be more successful in the future. Believe in your potential for change and avoid telling yourself that the failure was due to some innate, intractable flaw. Identify what you need to learn from the experience. You may conclude that you need to consult others more, listen to feedback, move more deliberately and go slower or concentrate on due diligence. It may mean resisting a tendency to sweep things under the carpet or avoid conflict. It could mean watching out for overly optimistic thinking or a willingness to “wait and see” until it’s too late.

Whatever your self analysis reveals, it is important to incorporate the learning into an action plan so you make the changes you think are needed. Engage in a post-mortem with a trusted advisor to review the anatomy of the failure. It’s important to distinguish external forces (market downturn, lack of resources, natural disaster) at play vs. internal attributes (a dearth of consultation, a lack of urgency when needed, decisions made too quickly, etc).

You may find that the experience results in a stronger sense of self worth or resilience, a stronger commitment to particular personal values and an increase in competencies.

Dealing with a failure well can result in increases in humility and self awareness as well as placing greater emphasis on ones values in decision making or increasing one’s competency in areas where formerly there was a blind spot.

Whatever the lessons learned, failure is a harsh teacher who points uncompromisingly at our mistakes, foibles and shortcomings. At the same time, she is a powerful conduit for self knowledge, growth and change. If you can rise to the formidable challenge she presents, all will not be in vain and your losses can turn into lessons in better living and working

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  Dr. Newman can be contacted at:

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

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