Failing with Grace

But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go through the Hakken Kraks howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak.”  — Dr. Seuss

April’s Harvard Business Review is called The Failure Issue, and so I thought I’d talk a bit a about it here on the blog.

Failure, you might ask? Aren’t executive coaches all about the positive? Think good thoughts, work hard, focus, and watch it all pay off.

Well, not always. Because the other side of coaching is that we are also surrounded by quite a bit of failure. Many times coaches are brought into correct a situation, where someone who is failing either because of their own shortcomings or due to an untenable situation. It’s our job to diagnose the issue and to provide remedial help to overcome it.

Except that doesn’t always work. Sometimes clients can’t do what is asked of them, or they choose not to. Other times the client is well-intentioned, but the system or culture simply doesn’t want to buy what they are selling. Too often coaches are brought in too late — after the powers that be have already given up on the person being coached. Once someone is in a downward trajectory, it’s enormously hard to stop the momentum.

So our job can become helping our clients accept and manage failure. Losing out on a promotion. Removed from a coveted project. Demoted. Or even fired.

For entrepreneurs, it can be closing down a business that’s a big part of their identity, or letting a dream go unrealized.

Failure hurts. Not just at first either. It changes the way we view work situations from that time forward. After someone loses their job they never quite look at corporate loyalty the same way. A 2009 Time magazine article cited a study that losing your job leads to poorer health — exacerbated by stress — that continues even one year after you are re-employed. The one bright spot was that people who lose their jobs tend to bottom out after 6 months, and begin to become more optimistic. Unfortunately, those left behind at the company to carry on see a rise in their stress level indefinitely as they fear the unknown for themselves. 

That’s the bad side. No one wants to fail and it causes us to face our own limitations. Yet everyone fails at one point or another. Learning to use failure for growth and change is the best way we can move forward. It’s not all sunny, but here’s what I’ve seen work.

1. First, fill in this blank for yourself. This failure allows me to do ______ which I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. One of my favorite quotes is Janis Joplin’s “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” When you fail, it dissolves some self-imposed conformity and creates an opportunity to think differently. Your perspective will change. Don’t miss the chance to see and do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. You’ll learn something about yourself and stretch out of your comfort zone.

2. Take ownership for your end of the failure. It feels really good at first to blame everything else — your boss, the company, the situation, the market. (Your good friends and family will help you do this because they love you.) But you can’t change any of those things. You can only change you. Try to be as honest as you can about what your part was in the failure. Could you have tried harder? Built more relationships? Seen warning signs earlier? Picked a better opportunity for yourself? Rely on a trusted colleague who knows your work for their advice. It’s like ripping off the Band-Aid, it stings but it has to be done for the healing to continue.

3. Understand the staggering power of your perspective. It’s a natural reaction to feel embarrassment and shame after a failure. A former CEO client who lost his job lamented about the anxiety of going to networking events and having to admit he’s now from the Company of Me. We can all relate. Here’s the secret though — how people feel about your new status is directly related to how YOU feel about it. If you seem depressed and resigned, they will interpret that to be the correct reaction. However, if you announce it with a confident smile, great posture, and an optimism for what the future holds, the world will view it as a positive as well. I recently spoke to a business acquaintance who was passed over for a promotion at her company. She was giddy. The reason?  She said she’s been wanting to get out and start a new business but had been too comfortable to leave. This gave her the opportunity to just do it. Trust me, no one was feeling sorry for her.

I’m not saying you should fake joy at a failure. But do the internal work of the first two points above, and whatever else works for you, to get to a place of peace and optimism.

I’m a fan of biographies and love to hear other people’s stories. Successful people will frequently cite that their biggest achievements have come on the heels of failure. It makes sense, but unfortunately it usually occurs in hindsight for ourselves.

It’s good to feel grief. And anger. And loss. And frustration. And fear of the unknown.

Just also remember that failure is an opportunity that you haven’t yet realized.

Note: Parts of this post originally appeared in the author’s column on Entrepreneur.com.

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About kristihedges
Executive coach, leadership development consultant, Forbes.com blogger, Entrepreneur.com contributor, author of Power of Presence (AMACOM).

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