How to take failure in your stride

Tuesday 19 November 2019
Don’t fear the f-word. Failure is part and parcel of life – but it’s how you deal with it that matters.
a person raising their hand in front of a textured wall

At CMI, we define an ‘achievable’ goal as one with objectives that are challenging but not impossible (there’s a reason why ‘realistic’ is often used as the ‘R’ in SMART!). Failure – or, rather, the potential for it – should come into the conversation at the very first stage of goal-setting.

When developing goals with your manager, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the expectations laid out – but don’t be afraid to voice that. You can do this in a constructive way that shows them you are enthusiastic about their ambitions for you but that helps the goal feel more accomplishable and ‘failure’ less likely.

For example: let’s say your manager sets a goal for you to present the annual results to the senior leadership team in 12 months’ time, but right now, presenting is not something you do regularly or find comfortable.

Tell your manager you’re really excited by this objective but you would like to work towards that end goal with more achievable milestones along the way. This could start with playing a bigger role in daily stand-ups, then progressing to presenting results in a team meeting. Always remember to ask for additional support or resources to reach your goals too – such as public speaking, in this instance.

Is it failure or imposter syndrome?

With your SMART goals set, now the emphasis is on reaching them – but even if your manager is happy with how you’re progressing, a feeling of failure might have already set in internally. Whether you’re doubting your own abilities, putting your professional success down to luck, or feeling like you’re never going to be able to reach your end goal, there’s a possibility that what you’re actually experiencing is Imposter Syndrome.

Defined as feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success, career development agency Amazing If found that a third of millennials suffer from Imposter Syndrome at work. If that sounds familiar, it’s time to assess feelings vs. facts. Draw a column for each and take a step back and separate the two. Let’s look at a situation where a project is experiencing lower results than anticipated.


- Your conversion results are lower than estimated for the project

- You have applied all of the techniques you have been taught to improve things

- This is the only project of yours where results have suffered

- You called on the wider team for their ideas but could have done it sooner


- You feel like you’re not good enough at your job and are going to be ‘found out’

- You feel like your skills are inferior to others and someone else wouldn’t have had this outcome

- You feel like you’re letting down the team and the poor results will reflect badly on them

What you may not have considered is that the estimated results might have been too optimistic from the outset. This situation reflects many people’s experiences of ‘failure’ at work. An element of failure has occurred, in that the results are below expectations. However, one individual is not responsible for that failure and it does not, therefore, mean that they themselves are a failure.

Realising this, especially in the middle of a stressful situation, is difficult. The next step from this is objectively assessing what you can learn from the situation.

Dealing with failure when it happens

It may sound cheesy, but it’s true that every ‘failure’ is a learning opportunity – it will give you more realistic expectations of what is achievable and what isn’t. Take the situation above. In the future, this person will know to challenge estimations to ensure they’re more realistic, to ask for help sooner and even to extract their own feelings from the facts.

Everybody ‘fails’ throughout their lives and career. Check out Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail podcast for proof, and listen to interviews with the likes of Dame Kelly Holmes, Alistair Campbell and Phoebe Waller-Bridge on all the things that haven’t gone right for them – and, crucially, how those things have shaped them.

Create a structure for your plans through our SMART objectives templates – we have hundreds of templates available to view and download from ManagementDirect.

Image: Tobias Tullius Unsplash