Applied Leadership Articles:

Failing Forward – Seeing Failure As A Messenger

Can we learn from failing?

June 8, 2016, - Download PDF

Tiara Failure Copyright: ra2studio / 123RF Stock Photo

“They were right.”

Three simple words Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, used to openly apologize to critics of her failure to recognize the difficulties single moms face succeeding in the workplace. In her recent Mother’s Day Facebook post, she exposes the emotional loss she felt after the sudden death of her husband and loving co-parent. This was a loss that led her to rethink old assumptions and gain empathy toward the 30% of families headed by a single parent, and the 84% of them who are single mothers.

Rather than jump to the defensive about these critiques, Sandberg’s post highlights a strong example of failing forward. This concept of failing forward is not new, it’s well articulated in John Maxwell’s seminal book “Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones.” We all experience setbacks, difficulties, and like Sandberg, strong critiques for a dearly held vision. We can become reactive and defensive, blaming others and ourselves and staying stuck in the problem.

To fail forward we challenge societal messages that correlate our performance to our self-worth. We choose to not internalize the failure and, instead, separate the difficult event from our self-worth. As Maxwell succinctly states: “Your response to failure holds the key to your future.”

Sandberg, however, takes it one step further and models a key aspect of failing forward—seeing one’s failure as a messenger and important feedback mechanism. In essence, instead of jumping into reactive mode, she used her failure as a powerful teacher she was willing to hear—that she needed to include a wider and more diverse take on women’s place in the workforce. She modeled true leadership by extracting the sting out of negative critiques to publicly evolve to a more nuanced perspective on a complicated workplace situation for women.

How might you change your response to failure so that it serves as a wakeup call and a way to produce results in the future? The following three strategies can help you move beyond your initial reactivity and gain wisdom from a failure you encounter.

Failing Forward Message of Awareness

In the wake of failure, it is easy to shut down and get caught in a narrow vision of blame, shame, and doubt about our abilities, choices, and future. Seeing failure as a messenger that is here to teach us can help us widen our vision, assess the larger context in which the failure occurred, and garner meaningful insight and wisdom for the future. To guide you in this process:

  • Give yourself space to be triggered and reactive by letting yourself feel angry, frustrated, or disappointed and then let this reactivity move through you.
  • View your reactivity and feelings as temporary and separate from the larger context that led to the failure.
  • Gain clarity and see the wisdom the situation is providing you and your team.

Failing Forward Message of Results

Once you’ve moved through reactivity and become aware of the message this failure is providing you, attend to the heart of the issue and your original intent of what you wanted to happen. Reconnect to the failure as an important feedback mechanism to extract value from the situation and to produce future results. To move forward in this process:

  • Conduct a post-mortem with your team, clients, and others involved to understand what actually happened, including what worked and what did’t. Listen deeply to their perspective and needs.
  • Examine more deeply what were the external and internal factors that contributed to the failure more deeply
  • Reconnect to your vision and results you want to produce, understanding that getting off track is part of life and something that happens to everyone. Failure can affirm and be a reminder of your values and vision.

Failing Forward Message of Community

One of the great gifts of failure is the opportunity it can create to bond and connect with others to solve potential breakdowns in communication and create better results in the future. To solidify these bonds:

  • Remember that you and your team might feel vulnerable after a failure and need each other’s support to avoid getting caught in blame or righteousness.
  • Retrain your team so they know someone will have their backs and support them when failure or difficulty occurs. Help them see that failures are opportunities to forge stronger workplace bonds and learn from each other as well as the failure
  • Take responsibility for your role in the issue and reclaim your leadership role by reaffirming the team’s vision and mission.

Our brains are wired with a negativity bias and will always default to focus on what went wrong. Failing forward helps to counteract this neurological reality by acknowledging the successes within the failure. Sometimes, all it takes is a brief apology and focus on the wider message to move forward, as it did for Sandberg when she stated: “They were right.”

Failure can be a teacher if we are willing to hear it. Remember, it’s what we do with the failure that makes all the difference, especially when we use the failure as a catalyst for wisdom and growth.

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The Author

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Alison Miller, Ph.D.

Dr. Alison Miller creates collaborative coaching relationships with her clients and helps them identify important life goals. She promotes the personal growth of all her clients by helping them change beliefs and attitudes, take action, engage in new behaviors and live their lives according to their own values.

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