Admit It: We Still Hate Failure


I realize that we should attempt to accept failure.

However, in the face of it is difficult to convince yourself that it’s a good thing. Failure is certainly a fact of work life that we must accept and master. But, we may need to take a moment to consider this a little more carefully. What is your real, gut reaction when you reflect back on a failure or setback? I’ll venture to say that the moment might remain cringe worthy.

Let’s be honest. Failing just doesn’t feel glorious.

This is where I believe the challenge with failure still lies. Our heads understand that failing can be advantageous to our work (read more about that here), but our hearts and emotions haven’t entirely followed suit. Intellectually we’ve accepted that we need to fail on the road to success — but learning how to live with that failure is an entirely different story.

Somehow we must find a way to calm ourselves and develop the ability to process failure more effectively. This often involves dealing with the emotional remnants (and fear) that develop when things simply don’t go as planned.

Failure may be necessary — but, digesting it isn’t ever easy. A few things to try:

  • Alter our associations. We initially define failure negatively, when it actually holds useful information. Researchers, for example, routinely experience a great number of disappointing outcomes on their way to a breakthrough. We should attempt to unlearn our typical view of failure, including labeling a misstep as an “end point” that is devoid of value. A less than positive result can point us toward a worthy alternative path.
  • Make perfection the enemy. We tend to equate perfection with success — and needed revisions with failure. This can prove destructive, causing us to limit what (and when) we share with others. Successful organizations, such as Pixar, encourage sharing an idea mush earlier in the creative process; accepting the notion that an idea can develop and improve.
  • Re-frame your emotions. Research has shown that how you view a discovered obstacle is every bit important as the problem itself. Attempting to extract a positive piece from a failure, no matter how small, is critical.
  • Utilize humor. Attempting to disarm negative emotions with humor is highly advantageous in times of stress. If you can somehow see a trace of humor in a failure or setback (give this a bit of time), it is a solid start in the direction of recovery.
  • Bolster fortitude. It has been shown that “grit” — the ability to stick with a task and focus on long-term goals, is key to dealing with failure. Take a break to re-gain energy, and then persevere. Promote resiliency and the discovery of  a”Plan B”.
  • Broaden our view of history. We often focus on the successes of others, but forget that their journey included many twists and turns. Highly productive individuals such as Richard Branson, practice methods to master the emotional side of the failing — including banishing embarrassment and dwelling on regrets.
  • Take another perspective. You may have convinced others that a setback in their work lives should not deter them from trying another route. Think of your situation. What advice would you offer them, if they were in your place? (Then take that advice to heart.)

It can be disheartening to experience a failure — but we can learn a thing or two from these moments.

How do you deal with a failure or setback? What are your strategies to help you recover and move forward?

A version of this post has previsouly appeared at Linkedin.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and workplace strategist. She also writes at Linkedin.

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