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What failure can teach us about success

What failure can teach us about success
Published: November 18, 2021
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In business, failure is as much a part of life as success, if not more so. Entrepreneurs are often driven by high achievement and therefore can feel setbacks deeply; but when handled in the right way, challenges can actually propel us forward to achieve even greater things. 

What do success and failure mean to you? 

The concepts of 'success' and 'failure' are deeply subjective and are rarely as black and white as profit and loss. Moreover, these concepts can be heavily influenced by our perceptions of a situation and the way we frame things in our minds. Think of a time you pitched an idea to a group, and you felt it went badly. Maybe you came away thinking it landed horribly or that people didn't understand your idea – that feeling of failure creeping in. However, another way of looking at this is that the group loved your idea and just wanted to discuss it further internally before sharing any feedback with you.  

Considering and understanding context is, therefore, incredibly important when it comes to determining how to move on from either end of the success/failure spectrum. What were your goals to start with? Where have you come from to get to where you are now? What can you learn from where you are today to take you into tomorrow? 

What causes us to fail? 

One of the most common reasons for failure is a poor expectation and goal-setting from the outset. It is human nature to overestimate what we can do and place ourselves on an unattainably high pedestal. But if we shoot for the moon and fail, it becomes all the more painful a process to recover from. Instead, if we are realistic with our goals and specific about what we want from the get-go, it will help give a clearer indication of what success or failure will look like based on the outcomes we achieve. 

If your goals are dependent on a team, a shared agreement of what those goals are and a common sense of purpose are essential to ensure everyone is clear about what it is they are working to achieve and in what way.  

Strong leadership action is key. The most effective leadership action involves outlining a clear sense of direction whilst also setting the tone to invite everyone to participate without fear of judgement or reproach. This is known as 'psychological safety' and is critical to facilitating good conversations in which everyone feels their input is valued and essential. This enables people to feel comfortable within a group and means they are more likely to perform at their best. Teams that are not having good conversations are not likely to succeed. 

Moreover, it is also essential to think about how teams are built and how they come together. Our human nature means we gravitate towards those who mirror ourselves, but homogeneity and 'group think' can often be the enemy of success. To innovate, you need diversity amongst your team to find as many different perspectives on reaching your goal or tackling a problem. 

What to do when failure strikes 

Research has shown that when we experience a setback, responding can fundamentally affect our brains. Specifically, internalising a failure (or something we perceive to have been a failure) and dwelling on it can eventually impair our ability to function in the future. So, it's important to remember that success and failure are like a rollercoaster. You have to have the highs and the lows, but there will always be a way up again. 

Positive thinking is not simply a cliched motivational message to be added to mugs; it does make a difference. Using positive language in our thoughts can shift our thinking to reinforce the messages we need to be successful. For instance, instead of 'I hope I don't make a mistake during this meeting with a client', turn it into, 'During this meeting, I will speak clearly and with confidence because my idea is worth sharing.'  

Studies have shown that by focusing on the positives of our outcomes, even our failures, we can shrink the psychological hurt we feel as a result. This is important because when we experience failure, and it hurts us, our subconscious tells us that we never want to fail at that same thing again, giving us a propensity to avoid doing anything similar again to prevent the hurt. This is known as avoidance motivation. 

The counter to avoidance motivation is promotion motivation, which is the process of telling yourself something went well and celebrating it. Recognising your progress in small chunks and reviewing that process extends our enjoyment of our achievements if we take the small wins. Our brains accelerate as we perceive success to be closer, so the more we see achievement, the closer we feel we're getting to it. When running a marathon, our brains can't cope if we just focus on getting to the end of the 26 miles. Still, if we tackle it by celebrating a series of smaller milestones, it increases our motivation and helps accelerate achievement. The same approach can be taken with business goals. 

British tennis player Emma Raducanu demonstrated a brilliant response to adversity after she opted to drop out of Wimbledon following health issues, despite a promising start to the competition. Instead of dwelling on the situation, she actively took control of the narrative by retelling her story to focus on the positives of her game up until the point she had to drop out. The strategy worked well, and she went on to win the US Open only a few months later.  

How to fail to facilitate success 

Most start-up businesses fail. This, however, is not necessarily a negative. If in doubt, consider the countless hugely successful entrepreneurs who have all had their fair share of business failures along their path to success.  

Failure is a positive when you use it to influence how you plan for the future and provide additional tools to help you flex and deal with adversity in the future. 

It's helpful to take a strength-based approach to this, which means regrouping and learning from the positives of the experience instead of trying to solve problems. Ask yourself, what went well? How did you achieve what you did? What processes helped you accomplish this? What values did you work to deliver those strengths? Now, how can you shape those strengths to reimagine them in a positive light? 

When going through this process, it's good to have open and honest conversations that use positive language to build on people's ideas, even if they are not shared across the group. Taking a human-centred approach plays a huge part in building empathy amongst the team, which will help boost productivity in the long term.  

The most successful people accept and expect failure to happen and therefore plan accordingly for it. For an effective strategy, be sure to build an 'in case of emergency' style plan so that if and when things go wrong, you are more prepared to respond. 

None of us is gifted with a crystal ball, so there will inevitably be things that occur that are outside of our control. In order to respond to those sorts of challenges, it is helpful always to try and keep time back in the day to expect the unexpected. Doing so helps us keep one eye on our long-term strategic goals whilst still retaining an all-important ability to react at the moment. 

About the author: Stuart Kelly is a Performance Psychology Associate Consultant at Impact, a global leadership development and creative change agency. Utilising his background in sports psychology, Stuart works with high-performing athletes and teams to help them prepare and perform at their optimum.