Spotlight on: handling failure

Gung-ho ‘no fear’ and ‘can do’ attitudes are inspirational to staff and can provide a focus for career development and personal growth.

Yet teaching management how to handle out-and-out failure – without either apportioning blame or denting individual confidence – should be at the top of the agenda for HR.

Get to grips

So says Gareth English, innovation consultant at the business psychology firm OPP, who believes that the recent resignation of England cricket coach Duncan Fletcher over lacklustre results highlights the importance of getting to grips with disaster.

“More employers need to understand the impact that poor commercial performance or management failure can have on their people in terms of depression and increased stress,” he says.

“Some staff will react with emotional outbursts against the firm when things go wrong, while others will internalise their feelings or blame themselves. It is important to understand who falls into which category,” he adds.

While pointing the finger when things go pear-shaped may well terrify staff into concealing their mistakes or blaming others, English believes that accepting we all make mistakes and learning from them can be an intensely liberating experience.

“Actively encouraging everyone from the post-room to the boardroom to be open about why things went wrong, and what will be done better next time, helps build trust and allows staff to turn failure into something positive to learn from,” he says.

With many organisations skewed towards success and unable to accept failure, the ‘scapegoating’ of staff is all too easy, says business coach and industrial psychologist Pat Marshall.

A former marketing manager working in the fast-moving consumer goods markets, she believes many managers operate a vicious ‘blame culture’ when things go wrong, rather than accepting that mistakes are bound to happen.

“I have come across some companies that simply refuse to accept they are fallible and that instantly look for a victim when things don’t go according to plan,” she says.

Passing the buck

“I have seen talented colleagues resign from an organisation rather than face the inevitable barrage of criticism when things have been black, and I have seen all too many senior directors resort to slandering others for their own mistakes.

“I have come to the conclusion that facing the music when we make serious mistakes or errors of judgement is the hardest, most grown-up thing that any of us have to do at work.”

Far from hiding bad news to protect the finer feelings of staff, management needs to be open when a mistake has been made and reassure staff that any impact is being minimised, argues English.

“Office gossip can spread all sorts of half-truths and inaccuracies, and in the case of serious business failure, may well increase people’s fears over potential job losses,” he says. “But the best weapon against the gossips is total candour.”

Admitting that we are only human may take a leap of faith in an organisation where success is taken for granted, but in the view of OPP, even a major calamity can be turned into something positive.

“Failure can be a great opportunity to learn,” says English, “but only if it is managed correctly and supported by HR.”

Top tips for success after failure

  • Use psychometric assessment to understand how different individuals will cope with failure

  • Tailor your communications along the same lines

  • Don’t be tempted to hide bad news

  • Make it known throughout the organisation that individuals will not be targeted when there is bad news

  • Encourage a grown-up culture of ‘owning up’ and learning from mistakes

  • Remember that to err is human, but to forgive, divine.

By Virginia Matthews

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