What to do when you fail: 10 steps to transform failure into success

Written by Dr Lynda Shaw Wednesday 27 October 2021
Take these steps to make sure both you and your team thrive in the face of adversity and cope healthily with failure
An image of a man sitting alone on some stairs with his head hanging down

Failure. A word we all dread. Failure can make us feel less competent, confident or intelligent, yet it’s inevitable. We have all experienced failure in our lives, and while in the short term it can be debilitating, it can also be a springboard to a new learning experience and can sometimes be life changing for the better.

Success and failure are considered opposites, but in fact they work hand in hand. Starting from infancy, we have all encountered failure and success. In order to learn to walk, we have to fall over a couple of times and through persistence, trial and error, we take our first steps and the rest is history. Throughout life we make plenty of mistakes at school, in relationships and throughout our careers, regardless of our experience or intelligence.

Failure is part of being human and is impossible to avoid, but how we deal with failure will determine our success and how we grow and prosper. The Beatles, JK Rowling and Thomas Edison are all known to have faced repeated rejection or failure before their extraordinary success.

Psychological research suggests that there are key traits to success

  • A growth mindset relates to the belief that you can grow and learn if you work hard enough. It involves tenacity and conceptualises failure as a temporary condition.
  • Determination is a combination of perseverance and passion, chasing goals and not letting setbacks stunt progress.
  • Resilience allows us to have knockbacks but to be able to get back up on our feet afterwards and find a way through the difficulties by being positive and using our strengths.
  • Psychological flexibility is the ability to adapt to change using creativity and the ability to problem solve. All of these traits allow people to harness failure as a tool, enabling them to become more successful as a result.

This all plays into how you cope with failures.


So what should we do after we fail at something?

  1. Accept what has happened. It’s not as easy as it sounds; we have a culture of making excuses or brushing things under the carpet. Own what happened. Once you have admitted a failure, then there is the opportunity to move on and grow. Failure is usually just a step in the journey.
  2. Be open and honest. Creating a transparent, open and honest workplace culture is key to ensuring that employees learn from each other's successes and failures and will in turn reduce the possibility of us concealing our mistakes.
  3. Keep it in perspective. The fact that you made a mistake or failed at something will probably upset you more than the people around you. Talk about what’s happened with trusted colleagues, friends and family. Try to keep it in context and perspective.
  4. Give yourself time to heal. Whether you need 30 minutes or a couple of days, give yourself some time to heal and to feel what you are feeling, but also try not to overly dwell on it or ruminate for too long. Forgive yourself, let it go, brush yourself off and regroup. When you can, smile about it, and remind yourself that you have other successes to be proud of and that this failure can ultimately have a positive outcome that you may just not be able to see yet.
  5. Create a plan of action for how to resolve, fix it or move on. Being more prepared gives you confidence and control. Success the second or third time round will supersede any doubts you have about your abilities.
  6. Lead by example. Management should encourage openness, ideas and new solutions. It’s important to act cohesively as an organisation and ensure that everyone understands failure in the same terms and to work as a team to fix any issues and deploy your team most effectively.
  7. Try fast-failure. That is, try something new quickly (which is likely to have flaws and some level of failure) and accept any failure that comes with it, make a change and repeat. This method is known to bring about innovation and success faster than normal because it achieves a desired result faster than perfecting the solution. This allows you to get feedback and iron out any obvious failures, or even completely cancel the idea if it is unlikely to succeed, without wasting as many resources.
  8. Share ideas. Have an open honest work culture where ideas are readily shared and constructive feedback is given. Encourage communication by adopting an open-door policy, and celebrate successes and discuss failures openly without trying to hide mistakes. Tap into the wealth of knowledge, talent and experience your workforce has to offer.
  9. Have a dress rehearsal. Even before any soft opening or launch, allow things to go wrong before it's vital they don’t go wrong. This will give you more confidence in everything going right on the big day and provide an opportunity for open and honest feedback internally prior to launch.
  10. Time to be positive. Actively choose a positive mindset. If we think we can ultimately achieve our goal, we are far more likely to.

Image: Shutterstock/interstid

Boost your resilience

All leaders face adversity at one time or another – and research shows only half of managers can cope with crises at work. As a CMI member you can develop your resilience with the resources from the CMI Career Development Centre. Simply log in and find ‘resilience’ under the list of topics.

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Dr Lynda Shaw is a neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.

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