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Dealing with Failure in Business During Trying Times

Businessman Walking Up Stairs

Failure. It’s a dirty word in some organizations, something that could really cost you. In other organizations, there’s a “fail fast” mentality where risk-taking is embraced in the pursuit of excellence. Whatever attitude your organization may take, failure is something we all experience at some point in our careers.

Today, the stakes of success are remarkably high as American companies face the extended effects of this pandemic. Yelp, the online review site, has been tracking business closures, and as of mid-July, 55% of the 132,500 pandemic-era closures on Yelp are now permanent, The Washington Post reported. Even if your business is faring relatively well, you’re likely feeling the effects of supply chain difficulties or reduced demand.

So, how do you talk about failure at a time like this, when much of your workforce might still be working remotely? When you’re not sure if we’ll see a second wave of the pandemic (or if the “first wave” ever really ended)? Or how the election and its aftermath will play into it all? Join me for a candid look at what failure means for us as companies and as individuals in the midst of a historic period of uncertainty.

Keep defeat in perspective.

Don Shula. If you’re remotely into football, you know the name. He was the winningest coach in NFL history and he led the Miami Dolphins to a pair of Super Bowl wins, including an undefeated season in 1972—which remains the only perfect championship season in league history. (Sorry, Patriots.)

Shula kept things in perspective for his team because he never obsessed about failure. In fact, he had a “24-hour rule.” He gave himself, his staff, and his players one day to celebrate a victory or agonize over a defeat. In that 24 hours, he encouraged the Dolphins to feel their emotions about their success or failure as deeply as they could. Then, it was time to focus on the next opponent.

When we experience failure at work, sometimes self-doubt can start to creep in—that loop of “just can’t do it” playing over and over in your head. That’s when we can learn a thing or two from Coach Shula about leaving defeat behind.

Leaders: Give them space—and a story.

If you’re a company leader, the first step in dealing with failure is taking control of your own emotions. Empathy and optimism are both things that people don’t just want from their leaders, they really need them during tough times. Therefore emotional intelligence is particularly important, so that you can deliver steady leadership. As Harvard Business Review put it back in 2011, “When a failure has occurred, don’t respond impulsively. It’s not always possible to right the wrong, but it’s almost always possible to make things worse.”

As you come to grips with your own feelings, give your team some space so they can process the defeat in their own way—your version of the “24-hour rule.”

When it’s time to talk about your failure, be clear about what went wrong without assigning blame. (If someone is to blame, talk to them in private.) Then at some point, shift your focus away from the failure to what happens next. Discuss what you’ve learned—and use humor to lighten the mood, if you need to. Since your feelings as a leader profoundly affect your team, it can help to share an authentic story about what you’ve learned from a previous failure.

Don’t let a crisis become a crisis in confidence.

McKinsey & Company describes the five lifecycle stages of the COVID-19 pandemic: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Reimagination, and Reform. Your employees will experience different emotions as we continue to progress through these stages: first confusion and anxiety, followed by unease and exhaustion, and a yearning for change accompanied by a sense of loss.

Acknowledging this sense of loss will prove critical. We all feel loss in our own way, whether it’s grief over the death of a friend or family member, financial worries from the loss of a job or pay reduction, or a longing for get-togethers, nightlife, and sporting events.

Scenario planning can help you discover where your employees are in dealing with the crisis, and the type of messaging they’ll need as the crisis continues to unfold.

A few communication pointers:

  • People pay better attention to positively framed information (“Do” instead of “Don’t”).
  • Focus on the facts. While this might include bad news about the state of your organization, the unvarnished truth is better than unfounded optimism.
  • You’ll also need to repeat your messages frequently to make sure they’re being heard. People have a harder time processing abstract or complex information, so strive for clarity and simplicity.

Believe it or not, employees want frequent messages from you. In one study, 63 percent asked for daily updates, while 20 percent wanted communications several times a day. These messages don’t always have to come from the CEO. Rather, they should come from the person viewed as an authority on the subject, whether it’s a manager or head of HR.

Curate victory stories.

While you don’t want to sugarcoat the truth, you definitely want to emphasize the positive. Gartner recommends collecting stories of teams that come together to overcome adversity. Be sure to capture the details because that’s what people really respond to. Did someone pull an all-nighter in their home office—and drink 11 cups of coffee—to hit a critical deadline? Include that.

Failure produces resilience.

Failure happens. There’s no point in obsessing about it; we have to process it, learn from it, and move past it. Failure can serve as a catalyst for future success. Just think of Ford, Edison, or Lincoln.

If you’re directly responsible for the failure, make sure to disassociate it from you as a person. It’s just something that happened; a blunder doesn’t make you a failure. Tell your boss and own up to your mistake. Just make sure to end the conversation on a positive note. If it’s your team that experienced defeat, give them some space and time to process their emotions. Next, discuss what went wrong—and what you can learn from it—without assigning blame. Then change to a more positive tone and move on.

Remember that failure is a critical ingredient for success even at companies like Disney and Google. Imagineers and Googlers fail repeatedly because they aim for the extraordinary rather than the mediocre. Failure gives you two valuable things: experience and feedback. Just like Edison with his light bulb, failure allows you to learn what doesn’t work so you don’t have to start from scratch the next time around. Failure isn’t an enemy. It’s a milestone on the path to success.


Derek Smith Team Photo at Element Three

Derek Smith's skills as a reporter serve him well as a senior writer here at Element Three—and if you need a coach for your soccer team, he's got you covered. He's worked as a content strategist as well as a copywriter, so he's always thinking about the why behind every word and every piece of every campaign.