Managing failure

Written by
Peter Lowe

26 Sep 2016

26 Sep 2016 • by Peter Lowe

This occurs particularly if you are ambitious, motivated and eager to succeed. The interesting thing is our perception of failure. In a winning culture you would think the ‘f’ word might be off limits, but actually failure is often an integral part of being a high performer. It’s not failure itself that is the issue, it’s how we hold it.

While the aim of a winning mindset is to focus on sustained success – whether that’s on the pitch or in the boardroom – the reality is that you’re not going to be excelling 100% of the time. So when failure looks you straight in the eye, how do you deal with it and, more importantly, what messages are you sending to your team who know and understand only too well what the repercussions might be?

The sum of all parts

A critical issue to note is that the team is an entity, it’s the sum of all parts and should act as a unit. This creates a glue that can be incredibly powerful in the face of adversity. General Manager of Team Sky, Sir David Brailsford, talks about the value of prioritising aims. This means taking a close look at what you are trying to achieve in order of importance and exploring how you can build chances around this. 

Often, placing the result above the process can be the fundamental reason why failure is the result. The golfer who aims to shoot 65 but shoots a 70 instead is putting pressure on himself to score rather than managing the process to succeed. As many Olympians from Rio will be all too aware, failure and success walk a very narrow precipice and it’s important not to take anything for granted.

When you start to home in on failure and examine the dynamics of it, you realise that failure itself is not emotionally loaded, but the residual effects can be.  If we spend too long licking our wounds and dwelling on the negative elements of failure it can be damaging to our overall performance. While it’s healthy to review performance collectively as a team and consider how things could be improved, it’s vital to consider what went wrong in the context of acting as a springboard to greater success.

Strong leadership is a game changer

For many, the debilitating impact of a negative mindset can stall momentum and even, in the worst cases, put people out of the game. When we look at the world through this narrow, grey lens it’s easy to be consumed by the fear of ‘what if it happens again?’ If we’re not careful this can lead to paralysis as perfection gets in the way and we become risk averse and stop putting ourselves out there.

This is where strong leadership is a game-changer. If a leader removes the fear of blame then the team as a whole are free to be open and honest and have the confidence to consider doing things differently. This creates a culture of trust and mutual respect which enables teams to not only bounce back, but strengthen on the back of a tough learning curve.

James Clear makes a great point when he explains that most of the significant things we do in life aren’t stand-alone events, but an accumulation of all our moments. By focusing on the theme of marginal gains we can then shift small percentages of activity that can ultimately have a powerful impact when actioned collectively. So, to aim to improve one aspect of an individual performance by 1% can become an equation for success when it is embraced by a whole team. 

5 top tips for coping with failure

1.    Accept that failure is intrinsic to success. If you’re putting yourself out there, you won’t always do it perfectly.

2.    How you hold failure is the big issue. Don’t dwell on it, but learn from it and move on with a solid plan of action.

3.    You win as a team, you lose as a team. Simple. It’s not a personal issue.

4.    Performance is instigated by habits. If you bring close awareness and greater discipline to your day-to-day behaviour, this will help to create marginal gains with lasting impact.

5.    Remember that some of the greatest performers, athletes and entrepreneurs have failed (often repeatedly) and used those experiences as opportunities to translate to greater success.