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How to Respond to Failure

On the first night of the 2023 World Athletics Championship two of the world’s leading athletes finished face down on the track within touching distance of a gold medal. These two Dutch women had missed their chance of glory in the most dramatic fashion and yet both were back on the track within the next two days focused on their next competitions.

Their experience was most certainly a case of “failing forward” and in the most spectacular and public fashion.

In his book “Failing Forward” John C Maxwell says:

“The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.”

Most of us fear failure, something we learn at school with the examination system and this often continues as we go on interviews for our first jobs. We run away from failure and stay safe.

Maxwell ‘s book is full of insight into how we as individuals can change our perception of failure using it as a stepping stone to move forward.  In business, company culture will have different responses to failure and this can have a huge impact on the team.

For London Marathon winner, Safin Hassan, falling at the end of the 10,000 metres was an individual disappointment. For hurdling favourite, Femke Bol, trying to bring the baton home in the mixed 4 x 400 metres, it was a blow for the team. For most athletes it is not quite such a public failure, but all need both personal resilience and a supportive team where your mistakes can be analysed positively and used to improve.

By the end of the week, both athletes had overcome this “failure.” Hassan medalled in both the 1500m and 5000m. Bol went on to win the 400m hurdles and, in the very last event of the whole championships, ran down the opposition on the last leg of the women’s 4 x 400m relay taking an unexpected gold for the team.

Psychological Safe Space

Whether it be in sport, life or business we need a psychological safe space as described at this link allowing us to perform to our best ability, be creative and meet challenges.

If your business or team has a fixed mindset, one of blame, excuses and denial, failure will be seen as an identity threat and will lead to a team that is anxious and defensive.

On the other hand, a growth mindset gives team members space to feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. “Failure” is seen as part of progress. There will be positive impacts on innovation, creativity, resilience, learning and performance.

In his book, “Black Box Thinking”, Matthew Syed uses case-studies and real-world examples to explore different mindsets and approach to failure. One of the most compelling studies is that of James Dyson who says ‘Creative breakthrough always begin with multiple failures.’ Dyson himself has set up the James Dyson Foundation encouraging children to learn creative problem-solving through adventure. The aim is to introduce “young people to the exciting world of engineering, encouraging them to think differently, make mistakes and realise their engineering potential.”

This type of approach is something that companies with a growth mindset encourage, Google, Pixar and Mercedes to name a few.

It is in the health sector, however, where Syed illustrates the difference between the two approaches most eloquently. In summary, a 2004 study focused on drug administration errors at two hospitals. Some of the units had tough, disciplined cultures: blame was common, mistakes were penalised and managers thought they had a high-performance culture. In the study, nurses were hardly ever reporting mistakes. But a closer look at the units showed something interesting. Whilst the high-blame teams were reporting fewer errors, they were actually making more errors than the low-blame teams. The nurses in the low-blame teams were reporting more errors so that they could all learn from them and not make the same mistakes again.

Creating a creative team culture

In order for your business to be resilient and face up to the considerable challenges faced, teams need to be:

  • open
  • trusting
  • supportive
  • collaborative

If you want to find out how to build a team with a growth mindset please get in touch at info@team-working.co.uk


References: John C Maxwell, “Failing Forward”, published by Thomas Nelson, 2000

Matthew Syed, “Black Box Thinking”, published by John Murray, 2015