I was a new agent and had just been given my first surveillance assignment. I sat outside the subject’s house and waited. And waited.
For something—anything—to happen. Hours later, I found myself asleep. Actually, it was a supervisor who found me and blew his horn. I jolted awake but I had been caught; it was both an embarrassing experience and a spectacular failure.
The pain of my failure was so acute that I never wanted to experience it again.
As leaders, entrepreneurs and business owners, you will experience failure and setbacks; and by now, you also probably know that you can learn a lot from them.
Unfortunately, the truly useful failures that change our thoughts and behavior (as opposed to merely stupid decisions) are somewhat rare. But it is possible to treat all failure and setbacks as strategic input on how to improve performance next time.
It didn’t take long for the supervisor who found me asleep on the surveillance assignment to spread the word to my colleagues. I swallowed my pride, kept a positive attitude, found ways to get interested in my assignment, and rewrote the ending by changing the focus from what I did wrong to what I was doing right.
Here are four ways you can overcome spectacular failure and setbacks:
1. Puncture The Ego And Admit Your Failure
The higher up the chain of command, the harder it is to admit a mistake.
But, the best thing a leader can do is share a few personal failures with other team members. This is where a big dose of humility and a small ego will serve them well. Mentally tough leaders do not always have to be right.
TIP: When you communicate this to other team members, it does several things:
- Assures them you won’t point the finger of blame at someone if something goes wrong
- Encourages others to be more open, and honest, about their performance
- Creates an environment of innovation and experimentation
- Indicates that you truly understand the consequences of creative problem solving
- Gives others permission to bring potential problems to leadership’s attention earlier rather than later
Too often, leadership talks about a strategy of “trial and error” but their reaction to failure undermines their message.
2. Maintain The Right Attitude About Failure
People with strong mind make their emotions obey their logic.
Mental toughness is managing your emotions, thoughts, and behavior in ways that will set you up for success. Your rational and thinking brain may understand the value of risk and failure, but your emotional, limbic brain system does not!
The only way to take control of your emotions is to focus on what you are actually learning from the experience.
As your brain learns, it adapts. What created fear, initially, is tempered by the thinking brain’s ability to see positive outcomes in the midst of a disappointment, failure, or setback. The more you fail, the less you’re afraid of it. And that is a good thing because it means you’re in control of your emotions.
TIP: If you focus on what you’ve learned, it suppresses the negative emotional reaction.
Remember—the key to success is avoiding the same mistake next time—so fail, but learn the lesson.
3. Start Asking The Right Questions About Failure
Rather than having all the answers, ask more questions.
The best questions always start with, “How, when, why, and what?” These are open-ended questions that invite conversation and discussion.
Curiosity is the foundation of life-long growth. If we remain curious, we remain teachable so that our minds and hearts grow larger with each passing day. We can retain our beginner’s mind by always looking forward and discovering new experiences and uncovering new information.
Success seduces us into becoming set in our ways. “It’s working,” we say to ourselves, so we settle into comfort zones that begin to look more and more like ruts as we age.
TIP: Curiosity is important for peak performance because it:
- Makes your mind active instead of passive
- Encourages you to be more observant of new ideas
- Opens up new worlds and possibilities
- Creates an adventurous response that leads you in a new direction
4. Wrap Failutre Up The Right Way
Behavioral scientists have indicated that the way in which we predict our future behavior is determined by our past memories.
If team members end a project with a sense of failure and hopelessness, their only memory of the experience will be negative. They will not move on to another project with a sense of growth.
As the leader, entrepreneur, or business owner, you have the power to create an atmosphere of trust and appreciation—whether or not the project was a failure or a success.
In the book, The Other “F” Word, the authors suggest that the best workplaces are formed on a foundation of trust, and trust is not forged when things are going great. Instead, it is formed when things are not going great because this is when team members learn who has their back.
TIP: There is a difference between failing, and learning from your failure. Learning from failure is an active process that requires you to put as much thought into it as you do how you plan to achieve success.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of complacency when confronted with a failure or setback because it takes more effort to extract the lesson to be learned than it does to shrug, give up, and move on.
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