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  • Teresa McKee

Failing With Grace

Albert Einstein once said, “Adversity introduces a man to himself.”

When you are relied upon for answers and solutions from your team, facing a failure can feel pretty defeating. But being able to handle failure with grace is a defining trait of a great, effective, and successful leader. There is an opportunity in failure: maturity and growth that can shape you for the rest of your career.

Failures can be anything from a large project that failed, implementing a new program that failed, or even smaller day-to-day administrative tasks that failed. The prospect of failure can bring up a swarm of emotions, but being able to also admit that you are not perfect is a precursor for massive growth. We learn from our failures, and if you ignore them, you are not going to learn from the mistakes that led to them, which will leave you in a state of stagnation rather than growth. Handling failure with grace really means taking a proactive mental and physical approach to the issue.

So what does this look like in action?

1. Denial isn’t a river in Egypt

Admitting that you have made a mistake is incredibly hard for most people. It requires a level of confidence that somewhat eludes us. Self-doubt creeps in and those feelings of “impostor syndrome” take over. “If I admit it was my mistake, I’ll be reprimanded or maybe even worse.” OR “Everyone will think I don’t know what I am doing and no one will respect my authority anymore.”

If you know, no matter what angle you try to attack the problem from, that you cannot prevent failure, the first thing you can do is acknowledge it. Trying to ignore the failure isn’t going to solve anything. How can you lead your team out of mistakes and failure if you can’t pull yourself up?

What’s important here is to remember that you are in this position for a reason - you have been identified as someone capable of leading a team - and you would be well-served to believe in that faith that others have in you! More people will respect your transparency if you address the issue directly and honestly. Trying to sweep the failure under the rug, or even worse - lay it on someone else - will do nothing for the respect your team has for you. Remember, respect is earned.

Recently, new electric car maker Rivian had a snafu with their customers that could have gone horribly wrong. Due to manufacturing delays and equipment shortages, coupled with the increased cost of just about EVERYTHING, Rivian sent out an email to its customer base that they were going to increase the price of their vehicles by over $10,000. This included the pre-orders, which customers had placed deposits on well before inflation and shortages. After an uproar by customers, the CEO sent another email, admitting that he made a mistake. He didn’t say that it was a glitch, or that someone sent the increase without his knowledge. He admitted that he made the wrong decision, apologized to those customers, and honored their original pricing. This is a great example of admitting a mistake, and taking ownership of the decision. This style of addressing the crisis and putting the issue to rest openly is a graceful way to handle failure, and he mitigated some massive potential for damage. He could have lost tens of thousands of loyal customers, but instead garnered respect and humanized himself in the process.

2. Identify What Went Wrong

We don’t want to dwell on the failure or wallow in self-pity, but it’s important to figure out what went wrong. The best time to do this is in the midst of the failure, which can help minimize the effects of it, but at the very minimum immediately after the failure has occurred. Many of us would like to forget about it and move on, because who wants the spotlight on them? But, if we don't take the time to figure out what went wrong, we might end up repeating the same mistake again.

  • Look at every step and decision you and your team made in the project and pull out the microscope. While you are looking for the cause of the failure, you may end up finding the positive aspects and strategies/decisions that actually worked well, and save those for a future project!

  • After examining everything, if you are unable to identify where you personally went wrong, it truly may have been out of your control. Sometimes, even if you did everything right from your end, unavoidable external circumstances could have caused the failure. If that is the case, understand, accept, and move forward.

3. Stay involved and stay on top of it

Great leaders and managers can usually recognize failure before it actually occurs, and can do so through involvement in the process. An absent leader/manager will have a much bigger mess to clean up than one who is constantly involved, even at arms-length, while still giving their team autonomy. If the failure came as a complete surprise to you, it may be time to evaluate if you were involved enough in the process.

  • Be sure to communicate the BIG PICTURE and goals effectively.

  • Constantly monitor results when implementing a new idea/plan/project. Have some type of measurement for success in place, which can show you and your team where your plan is headed well in advance, giving you the time to take countermeasures.

  • Encourage feedback from your team. Giving your team the confidence to come to you when they see something going wrong creates cohesion and trust. Your team could have some very valuable input to ensure the success of the project.

4. Don’t move on - move FORWARD

As noted above, keep communication lines open. Make sure everyone is up to date (as relevant) on what happened and communicate your plan to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Don’t dwell on the problem, rather focus on the solutions. You can’t guarantee anything, but having a plan laid out will instill confidence in your team that you are a competent manager.

The most necessary discussions in the workplace may not always be the most fun. We have to be sure to avoid avoidance! Procrastination and ignoring problems does nothing for team cohesion or success.

  • If this was a group failure, talk with your team about what went wrong and what went right. Be sure to show appreciation for their involvement.

  • Ask your team to think of remedies. And here is one that may be tough to wrap your head around: Ask them for HELP - it’s empowering and encourages teams to work harder toward the common goal.

Failure is nothing to be embarrassed about and is pretty much impossible to avoid. So once we begin to see failure as a part of life, we can learn to become comfortable with it. Showing others our vulnerability, and then showing them our tenacity to recover from failure, can inspire valuable connections that lead to successful teams.

Show your team through your example that it’s ok to fail. Show them how to get back up and dust themselves off. Let failure be your asset, not your liability.


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