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How Your Failure Inspires Connection and Success

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We hear all the time that learning from past failure is the key to success. But what about TALKING about failure, particularly with people who already see you as a success? Do failure stories damage your brand or make it stronger?

After all, if you’re on a successful trajectory, who wants to hear how you’ve failed?

As it turns out, just about everyone you’re looking to influence.

The Business Case for Talking About Failure

I’ve been struck this week by reading this Harvard Business research, Why Managers Should Admit Their Failures.  

Alison Wood Brooks has done some really solid research that shows that leaders who balance talking about their failures along with their success thwart “malicious envy,” improve influence and foster collaboration.

“Managers can be particularly easy targets of envy, especially when they move quickly through fast-track promotion programs and their colleagues don’t. So, in discussing a promotion or a work-related reward, a manager might consider tossing in a setback encountered earlier in the person’s career to appear more confident and credible, rather than self-centered.”

“Other workers can relate to facing obstacles, so hearing about the successful manager’s missteps can not only decrease internal competition among colleagues, but motivate other employees to strive for success themselves. Also, in group meetings, managers could consider “humanizing” members of the team by encouraging people to share their mistakes as a team-building exercise to improve communication and collaboration.”

“You can motivate your team to work harder by doing this,” Brooks says. “I know I have felt that way seeing other women who have succeeded. I want to know their tricks, how they navigated the minefields, and what mistakes they made along the way—that will help me avoid those same mistakes.”

The conclusion, if want more influence—stop protecting your brand with a success lens, and let your team and peers see a more balanced view.

An Early Story About Failure

Which reminded me of a story I haven’t thought about in a long time.

I was in my late 20s with a newly earned graduate degree and a chance to finally work in HR, building high-performing teams at Bell Atlantic.

A few months in, it became perfectly clear that the motivational theories I had studied in grad school had not fully prepared me for navigating this complex company in the throes of a constant firestorm of change and messy political dynamics. I was fighting a steep learning curve, and most days the curve won.

So I spent more money than I could actually afford on a couple of decent suits, and carefully read every book on executive presence I could get my hands on. I wanted to show up as polished as I could on the outside to compensate for the insecurity on the inside.

Then one day, Dolores, my peer who had been doing this work for two decades, took me aside. “Do you know what John is saying about you?  To EVERYONE?”

John was a gregarious, old-school, ops guy. If anyone was in a position to quickly influence EVERYONE, it was John.

“What?” I braced myself to hear what I was sure was the laundry list of political missteps I had made or judgment calls that had backfired.

He’s telling everyone you are the golden child, brought here from the outside to shake things up. That the executives love you … so everyone better watch their backs. I believe his exact words were “you’re kicking ass and taking names.”

Watching the incredulous look on my face, she smiled:

“I know, it’s pretty funny … you’re just a well-meaning. clumsy kid. Karin, if you’re smart, you’ll let John see behind the scenes of your struggle, and ask for his help. Stop trying so hard trying to make a good impression and tell him you need some advice.”

Related: Why Your Best Performers Hate Your Great Idea

That meeting with Bob was one of the best ROIs on a cup of coffee I’ve ever sipped.

John needed to know I knew that I didn’t know it all.

John needed to know that I knew that I had a strong CV of failure brewing  (if you haven’t seen this, really worth a click, particularly a scroll down to the final one-sentence section on Meta-Failures).

John listened carefully to what was really going on and offered to help—starting with stopping the destructive, verbal sabotage and eventually taking a more proactive support role to endorse some of my key initiatives.

Your turn.

Has your desire to look “perfect” ever sabotaged your influence?

Have you ever given someone the benefit of the doubt, once you heard the other side of the story?

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