How we respond to failures and bounce back from our mistakes can make or break our careers.
Take the example of two MBA graduates who were laid off from their positions during the recession. Both were distraught. Being fired provoked feelings of sadness, indecisiveness and anxiety about the future.
For one, the mood was transient. Within two weeks he was telling himself, “It’s not my fault; it’s the economy. I’m good at what I do, and there’s a market for my skills.” He updated his resume and, after several failed attempts, finally landed a position.
The other spiraled further into hopelessness. “I got fired because I can’t perform well under pressure,” he lamented. “I’m not cut out for finance; the economy will take years to recover.” Even after the market improved, he was reluctant to apply for positions and feared rejection.
How these individuals handled failure illustrates opposite ends of the spectrum.
Optimism and Resilience
Research clearly demonstrates that people who are naturally resilient have an optimistic explanatory style – that is, they explain adversity in optimistic terms to avoid falling into helplessness.
Those who refuse to give up routinely interpret setbacks as temporary, local and changeable:
In contrast, individuals who have a pessimistic explanatory style habitually think setbacks are permanent, universal and immutable:
University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin P. Seligman believes most people can be immunized against the negative thinking habits that may tempt them to give up after failure. In fact, 30 years of research suggests that we can learn to be optimistic and resilient – often by changing our explanatory style.
Learning from Mistakes
Many managers have learned to reframe personal and departmental setbacks by stating: “There are no mistakes, only learning opportunities” – and it’s a great sentiment. In practice, however, their companies often continue to view failures in the most negative light.
Part of the problem lies in our natural tendency to blame. We perceive and react to failure inappropriately, expending energy to either assign or avoid blame.
In the 1930s, psychologist Saul Rosenzweig proposed three broad personality categories for how we experience anger and frustration:
Extrapunitive responses are common in the business world. Fortunately, managers at all organizational levels can repair their flawed responses to failure. Business consultants Ben Dattner and Robert Hogan suggest three highly effective steps in “Can You Handle Failure?” (Harvard Business Review, April 2011):
Blameworthy or Praiseworthy?
Harvard management professor Amy Edmondson delineates a “spectrum of reasons for failure” in “Strategies for Learning from Failure” (Harvard Business Review, April 2011), as summarized here:
Notice how this spectrum progresses from mistakes that are blameworthy to those that could be considered praiseworthy.
How many of the failures in your business are truly blameworthy? Compare this to how many are treated as blameworthy, and you’ll have a better understanding of why so many failures go unreported.
As your coach I partner with you to cultivate your self-awareness; I help you understand the messages you are sending to yourself and to others.
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