How to Navigate Failures at Work Successfully and win Trust from Managemen
Emerge from failure stronger, make failure a platform to grow your career
The good thing about fearing failure is that everywhere you turn, especially online, people try to comfort you. They are good people. They do not want you to fail recovering from failure. You can feel warmth from them, coming through their writings. They understand failure. They know the impact of failure has in your head.
Many of them must have read Daniel Kahneman, the ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ guy and his Nobel Prize co-winner, Amos Tversky’s work that the negative effect losing has on you, is twice the intensity of the effect that winning has on you. A good mathematical reason for not wanting to fail. Failure is such a losing proposition that, you would think no one in the right mind wants to fail.
Yet there are lot of successful people who want you to fail. You will read about the greatest people on earth, as defined by success in business, like Charlie Munger, Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson who think that a dose of failure will do you good. And concepts like, ‘fail forward,’ ‘fail early,’ ‘fail fast’ and ‘fail to success’ are being sprinkled all over our conscious domains.
On the surface, it seems the super smart and the super successful are contradicting each other. I think the psychologists are saying that failure is super painful, the elite entrepreneurs are saying, “despite that, failure will do you good. It builds character and teaches valuable life lessons.”
Another psychologist, Professor Stephen Joseph proposes that there is growth after adversity. Subjects who faced a major adversity in life were interviewed four to seven years after the event. In his book, “What Doesn’t Kill Us,” Dr. Joseph says, “Most mentioned at least one positive change in their life…” Of those interviewed, 35 percent reported increase in self-confidence. To reap the positive change, he advises, people dealing with adversity need to:
1. Confront reality, rather than deny it
2. Accept that misfortune has occurred, rather than submit to it cheerfully
3. Take responsibility for how they live their lives in the aftermath, rather than blame themselves for their fate.
To failing, everybody has a number like salespeople have their closing ratio. In sales, when you are 25:1, it means, on the average, you have to present to 25 people before you make a sale. To keep you going, you are taught to thank everyone you’ve failed to close. Every failure is one person nearer to the close. You have to embrace a tough as nails mental mantra, “SW, SW, SW, Next.” Some will. Some won’t. So what? Next. And, so it seems, that we have a failure ratio.
You will have a failure. Like death, it’s not ‘if’ but ‘when.’ Scientific American reports studies by Dashun Wang and his colleagues at North Western University. They wanted to create a mathematical model that can reliably predict the success or failure of an undertaking. It took a lot of work, studying over 700,000 grant applications submitted to the National Institute of Health (NIH) and 170,350 terrorist attacks. Their studies included startup failure rates. The result: average number of failure before success was 2.03 for the NIH applications, 1.5 for startups and 3.90 for terrorist attacks. Wang’s takeaway? Every winner begins a loser. Every one fails first. But, he also warns, not every failure resulted in success. What you do after the failure and how you do it influences greatly.
Failure, like death is a when and not an if. As such, you have to think about failure before you fail. But, understandably, you don’t want to think about failure.
I am going to post this quote from the smart Farnam Street which quoted from ‘the Antidote’ by Oliver Burke, who quoted economist Paul Ormerod: “Our resistance to thinking about failure is especially curious in light of the fact that failure is so ubiquitous. Failure is the distinguishing feature of corporate life”
And the rest of life itself. You will fail towards the ultimate failure, organ failure. And die.
It’s a cliché. Yet it’s sung like a new song at every employee induction, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” And you will fail even if you plan. The evergreen poet, Robert Burns wrote in ‘To A Mouse:’ “even the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” You have to plan to fail. By anticipating failure, you are actually better prepared. You mitigate the impact on your emotion and if you think hard enough, you may have a containment plan. And even eliminate the possibility of failure.
Of course, once in a while you are gripped with fear that your life will be a one big failure. It’s okay. It’s normal. That big thought is usually built up through smaller thoughts about failure. You are more frequently bugged by thoughts or experiences of failure with your small business or at work.
So how do you navigate a failure with your business or at work? How do you gain trust from your customer or management despite the failure? Let me show you how this can be achieved.
Are you ready? Okay let’s get down to the floor. You missed an important commitment. Or, you had a safety excursion. Or, there is an information breach from your team. It could any one from a thousand scenarios. The common thread is, there is a major performance failure. What do you do to contain the fallout? How do you keep VIP nerves calm? How do you navigate to safe ground? How do you regain the trust of management?
The worst is not over until it’s over
Like all service failures, you have the set the wheels going for a recovery, sooner than later. However, with the rehabilitation process, likewise the recovery, you have to know what went wrong, and where. Look at your service cycle or your project milestones. Where was the breakdown? What broke down? Forget about who broke it down for now. Don’t get into the emotional space. It slows down and jumbles up your brain. The executive function of your brain, the place where you make decisions will be shrouded with a dark mist of negative thoughts. You can’t possibly think effectively.
The worst begins when you may think, “ANYWAY, IT’S HAPPENED. THE WORST IS OVER! Let’s wait for the heavy metal.” Not necessarily so. If proper steps are not taken to contain the fallout, worse things could happen. Not discounting a career implosion.
Confront reality. We have a performance failure. To turn things around fast, containing the damage, let’s identify and work on the issues. WRONG! To turn things around fast and contain the damage, let’s identify and work on the people first. If there is nothing you get from this work and you remember this advice, you can assume you have a perfect memory: “With any service failure, treat the people before you treat the issue.” Take care of feelings. Settle the nerves before you proceed to the mundane.
And, oh, let’s not keep it within the team? If you think of keeping the lid on and bad news from your key stakeholders or senior management until you complete the recovery, think again. The grapevine is faster than the Shinkansen bullet train.
I used to work for an industry leading high tech company. I was in Human Resources Communications which included getting press releases released by the media. To make that happen I had to munch and mingle with local news reporters. The company I worked for was not the biggest outfit in the community yet. We were not getting priority respect from the press.
In one tea break with a few of the reporters, I let them in on a whisper I heard. My conscious intent was to get some respect. My subconscious intent was making my job easier. Get the respect! “We have plans for a x square foot warehouse.” It was supposed to be off the record.
It was a scoop for the evening editions. The office ambience the next day mirrored that of a wake. I was warned, the MD (Managing Director) was a hot missile looking for its target. I can imagine Corporate were all over him the night before. I bet he hardly had a wink. It was easy for Corporate. They were in the day when we were at night. Time zones.
At the office, the MD was with my boss. Looking at the gestures, I could feel toaster heat like the piece of bread in it. Knocked the door, stepped in, confessed, explained the intent, apologized and offered to resign.
Keeping the story short, my resignation was rejected. I was conscripted into the damage control team. Confront the reality. Address feelings first. Don’t deny. Face your mistake. Admit you failed.
This is how you navigate through the rough waters when you fail, and have a shot at gaining the trust of management.
Be first to do the fear
It’s natural to have fears when facing senior managers. “What are they going to ask that I do not have on my fingertips?” But David Joseph Schwartz of “The Magic Of Thinking Big” has a great advice, “Do what you fear and fear disappears.”
I used to coax and train my staff to win over their toughest customers. The bigger the fish the better. The bigger the fish, the better the gain. Usually, the level of their fear commensurate with rank of stakeholders. Stakeholders are feared for their clout and reputation as an a__hole. “When they are won over, you have their clout with you,” I used to say. Susan Jeffers has a wonderful book, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” When the fear disappears, you are in control.
To be in control, you should always be the first to communicate the bad news, especially when you personally ‘screwed up.’. You know the facts. It is inexcusable if something happens in your area and you are not the first to know. If you do not have an escalation process designed and communicated, do it now or face consequences. Imagine, if someone two levels higher knows what is happening in your area better than you do, what does that say about you? What would your credibility will be worth, exactly? You must know what is happening within the sphere of your control. Then be the first to deliver the bad news. Not only good for your credibility, it saves you from having to extricate “garnishing” from the other eager conveyors of your bad news. When it’s not their problem, people tend to add details from their interpretation of the situation, developed through past experiences of similar event.
But how do you deliver the bad news? How do you face the music? How do you address the issues after taking care of feelings?
Taking care of business, mind your mind-set
Before you can do anything right in this situation, you must tune into the right mind set. If you are angry at somebody whether it is your subordinate, your supplier or yourself, you are on the wrong track. You have to get rid of negative emotions or they will spin you out of control. Do not play the blame game. Look at the issue as an incident and detach it from personalities. It is not about them. It is not about you. It is about the issue. It is about what happened, how big is the impact. And, how you manage the situation.
Savor past successes with your team; I am sure that your team has done wonderful things. The incident is an exception and not a norm. This is not asking you to sweep this excursion under the carpet. This is asking you to put things in perspective, protecting morale. To lead the recovery process successfully, you need confidence in yourself and from your team.
Encourage your team to share key learning from this episode. You and your team should learn not to make this mistake again. You will be proactive. Now that you have control over those shriveling self-doubts, negative images of yourself and those around you, take a deep breath. You are going to turn things around.
Look for the gain from the pain
It was either from John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon, the discovery that Chinese for ‘crisis’ is made up of two words; the top part of the word is a character representing ‘opportunity’ and the bottom is ‘dangerous wind.’ Thus, crisis is ‘opportunity riding on dangerous wind.’
Napoleon Hill said it differently. He is quoted as having said, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” Simply put, look for the silver lining in failure.
Despite failure, there are possibilities. What are the opportunities riding on this dangerous wind?
-Will this crisis help you to get the funding for a project that was de-prioritized?
-Is there an opportunity to prevent a similar failure in other sites, other departments?
-Will management look at your request for a bigger training and development budget favorably now?
-Will you get to install better facilities in your area of service?
-Will you able to share key learning with the community and in this way, boost your company’s social responsibility image?
Get the point? How can you use what you learn to boost your organization’s advantage? How do you display leadership in time of failure? With what ways can you show that you are a pair of steady hands in time of crisis? You may even be recognized as a go- to person for managing crises. You would have built an invaluable platform for yourself. Success is always within reach if you are resilient in the face of failure.
However, before you do all these, there is one thing you must do first…
Be your own whistle blower to gain trust
You must be the first to report the incident. If you do not have all the facts yet and the investigation is taking time, shoot a ‘first notice’ email.
This email must be brief and effective. Just have a one liner introduction: “This is the first notice that (the incident) happened at our facility. Investigation is ongoing. May take up to 5 hours to complete. I will keep you updated by the hour until the closure report. A meeting will be called for a face to face update. I will send the logistics of the meeting out within the hour.”
Keep the stakeholders grounded. Somebody is looking at it. Somebody is working on it.
Then, describe the incident. Keep to the facts and chronology. In bullets. No “he says, she says.” Just the facts of what happened as you know it and as you saw it.
Very important conclusion; impact to lives and business. “No one injured. Impact successfully contained,” would have been assuring.
Be specific with your time commitments and action plans. Work hard to meet the deadlines. Making and keeping commitments stabilize emotion, gain trust.
Finally wrap it up with a ‘next steps’, an apology: ‘our team is sorry that this happened, we will learn from it and prevent the failure from happening at our company’s other locations or a recurrence here.’ Write briefly about your plans to share key learning and a reminder of the next update. Although this is meant to get you some breathing space, helping to keep “the wolves at bay,” you have to walk the talk.
Face the H.E.A.T. and keep your cool
.These are suggested guidelines for delivering the bad news
1) Do it as fast as you can. Be the first to send out the bad news to those who need to know. If you get phone calls from the top leaders asking you about the incident before you tell them, you have failed. It will be quite a few notches tougher for you working through this adversity. You have just lost control.
2) Do it fast does not mean do it haphazardly. Stick to the required format. Is it a phone call to the Chief that is the usual practice or a first notice email? Ideally, brief your immediate boss before the first notice. Call the Chief immediately you clicked send for the first notice. Get your facts and bearing right. It will certainly difficult to apologize for a failure within a failure. The chronology of events in the notice must be in order.
3) Stick to the facts, only the facts and nothing but the facts. Check your report for emotional slang. Absolutely, no finger pointing. Do not even think of hiding anything or do any type of ‘creative engineering.’
4) Show remorse and a will to learn from this. Show leadership in multiplying the value of your experience through sharing.
5) Do not, in the haste to please, over commit. Do not ‘sand bag’ either. You have to walk all your talks. Equally important, you have to project unquestioned integrity.
6) Plan for a series of updates including face to face meetings until closure. Set the schedules and agenda and stick with them. In the meeting, take the H.E.A.T. I believe you have heard of the H.E.A.T. action plan before. This is not something that just came into this world but it certainly is a VIP (Very Important Plan). The H.E.A.T. takes the heat off you and allows you off to focus on recovering from the failure. Embrace the H.E.A.T.
Hear them out. Allow the customer to vent! Watch your body language. Nod to show understanding and take notes. Taking notes tells the customer that he/she is important enough. Ask clarifying questions, “I understand how you feel. If you don’t mind my asking….” If possible, grab two cups of coffee and get the customer seated. This will be less intimidating for you. Make sure you have eye contact. Make the customer know that he is the most important person to you in the world at that moment. Say sorry once. Once is enough. Keep your composure. Calmness is critical for you to respond intelligently.
Empathize. Show that you know how the raging customer feels. Show that you are looking at the situation from his side of the fence. Go beyond listening and offer understanding through empathetic feedback, “I understand you feel upset and I don’t blame you. You are right to feel this way. We are going to fix this immediately.” I cannot over emphasize the importance of NVC (Non Verbal Communications) or body language. Remember, you communicate with your whole body/behavior, not just your mouth.
Accept Responsibility. The worst you could do is blame the janitor. Or, anyone who has a different name from you. You cannot lose by accepting responsibility. If the customer is raging at you, you must be the one accountable on the organization chart. Accepting the blame is a given. Even if you are not the cause of the failure. You will make a great impression of yourself. “I will make sure that this gets done. I will get back to you personally at 4.30 on our plans.” If it is not your area of control, “I’ll make sure John takes care of this. John or I will get back to you on this by 4.30 today. Is that fair for you?”
Take action. Do not be branded as a no action, talk only (NATO) person. Take lead to form a recovery team, engage other focus teams. Conduct structured problem analysis. Develop a plan. Communicate the plan and execute to it. However, the salient advice in all service recovery action is to address feelings before you address issues. No one will be in the right mind for your improvement plans, unless negative feeling, about the incident, is assuaged.
Focus on people first. Focus on people as you go about recovery work. Focus on people at closure. Focus on people when you get home.
I can never over-emphasize the importance of body language. Have eye contact with speakers or when you are speaking, with key members of the audience. One pause at a time.
Emphasizing the importance of body language; Look at the person you are speaking to in the eyes. If you are speaking with the group, scan around the table. Look into the eyes of the influential when you are making a point or asking for help. Use the audience to help you if some are engaged in a ‘rat-hole’ type situation. “I think this deserves a closer look and a special session, so that we can move on here. Would you prefer a morning meeting or one before we close on Friday?” Make nods of understanding and take notes. Again, taking notes shows respect.
7) Have excellent solutions or alternatives ready. State the issues and spend quality time on your solutions and proposals. If you go into a meeting without viable solutions, in my experience, you may need a quality “bullet proof” vest. When dealing with senior management, especially the finance and engineering folks, be prepared with charts, tables and analyses. If you need their help, ask for it. You cannot lose. Either you get the help or you get guidance.
Like all successful recovery plans, solutions must lead the service or performance to a higher standard than it was before the failure.
8) Ask for a sponsor for your recovery plans. This will also be an acid test for reception of your plans. If your plans are good, you can easily get a sponsor. Your sponsor will be an important ally to get things going and be a powerful megaphone of your successes later. Just remember, no one wants to get involved in a plan to fail. Everyone wants to go to heaven, no one wants to die.
9) Be smart, make an ally before you go into the meeting. Take it offline with the most influential stakeholder before you go into the meeting. Tell the ‘powerful one’ your plans and the help you need. Ask for a sponsor recommendation. Again you can’t lose. Either you get the support or you get a blasting. At least the blasting is in private. At the meeting, he is unlikely to blast you again. It’s culture not to hang people twice. And, if he does blast you again, it’s going to be a milder addressing.
It might be a good thing after all
In summary, delivering the bad news need not be a disastrous event, unless the performance failure is a repeat. If you plan carefully, you might even gain better traction for your career from the failure. Strange as it might seem, this has actually happened over and over again. Remember to take the emotions out. Face the Fear. Watch out for the body language. Treat people’s emotions before the issue. Take control. Display your leadership in crisis. You will pull through. Your reputation as an effective crisis leader may pull you up. Crisis is opportunity riding on dangerous winds. Remember; be the first to do the fear, mind your mind-set, be your own whistle blower and embrace H.E.A.T., you’ll be alright. Are you confident to face the next failure? Browse my site if you want more.