Leading a Top Employee Through Failure

If you think about things that are easier said than done, accepting failure has to be towards the top of that list. We all do it. In our hearts and minds we know it isn’t the end of the world. We know that some of the best things have been born out of repeated failures.

And yet…

When it happens to us we want to crawl in bed, hide under the covers and never come out again.

Failure can be so defeating.

As with everything in life, individuals react differently to failure. Some know it’s par for the course, but others really struggle to think that even minor, infrequent failures are ok. Even the word failure can send them into shock.

For individuals who struggle to deal with failure, their leader can play a significant role in helping them recover. Now this is certainly dependent upon the person and some people just need time to get over it themselves, but for others there are a few things leaders can do to move employees through the process of getting over a setback.

Make Failure Acceptable:
A big reason failure is taboo is because we are worried about how our failure will affect the way others perceive us. We all care very much about the way others think about us and we fear that failure will only perpetuate negative feelings. Businesses with employees who consistently struggle with failure are often businesses who have consistently pushed perfection. An impossible pursuit that can actually lead to more failure. All leaders need to let employees know often that failing is part of the job – all jobs – and that while it is taken seriously, it is also expected.

Focus on the Learning:
A few weeks ago, I was in an engineering firm’s office. I was there to create a career development program and was able to witness an employee coaching opportunity on the spot. A long-term, high-performing employee came into the conference room where I was meeting with his supervisor. He told the leader that he had tried a new way of doing something (this is the part where the engineers always lose me) and it had not only failed, but had set them back a bit against their ultimate goal. You could tell by the employee’s face and demeanor that he was really struggling with this failure and the consequences. His leader thought for a moment and then said, “You know, I was wondering about trying that myself. I’m glad you tried it and even though it failed, at least we know.” While this didn’t totally alleviate the employee’s feelings about the failure, you could visibly see the relief on his face about his supervisor’s initial reaction. His leader then gave clear direction on what to do next and stated that he would follow up in a couple of days to talk about what they learned through that failure. I do not think this leader could have handled that any better.

Once Over, Drop It:
Once the failure has been recognized, fixed, coached to and everyone is in a reasonable place to move on, it’s important for the leader to drop it. An employee who feels like that failure is constantly being held over their head or could come back to haunt them at any time will never truly get over it. Further, it will make them so worried about future failures, the stress of which can lead to even more errors.

Of course these are general statements about your everyday failures. I realize there are situations in which higher levels of discipline or coaching are required. Hopefully, though, those situations are far and few between. The key is to make employees feel like making mistakes is an accepted part of the job and not something they are going to be criticized for over and over. Focusing on setbacks this way can greatly increase the trust between leader and employee, which leads to higher levels of engagement in the end.


Originally posted on Acacia HR Solutions blog.



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