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Rio and failure

What lessons can we learn from failing to reach a goal?

By Ian Hendry

I am sure many of you are putting in some extra hours sitting in front of the T.V. watching the Rio Olympics. There are so many fascinating/quizzical storylines, whether it is the doping fiasco, contaminated water, IOC leadership, or the chances of being mugged. However, if we focus on the purpose of the Games, watching elite athletes compete, it is compelling.

There are 10,500 athletes competing, and the commitment of these athletes to be the very best in their own countries, let alone the world, is inspiring. It is unfortunate that only a small percentage will return home with a medal. It must be particularly hard on favourites, touted to be medal winners by their country, who fail to live up to expectations. Many are likely to feel quite devastated.

If I were to ask you who was the world’s best male tennis player, for example, most of you would likely vote for Novak Djokovic. Yet, this great Serbian who finally won the French Open in June, becoming the first man in 47 years to hold all four grand slam titles at once, lost in the opening round. Visibly upset and tearful, Djokovic said "no doubt this is one of the toughest losses in my life and in my career."

Since it will be 2020 before he can try again, it is quite possible he will never win an Olympic gold medal, and for all the athletes who do not perform at their very best, we should be emphatic to how hard it must be to manage failure? To relate this to us personally, there is the question as to what we can all learn from failing to reach a personal goal.

We have all faced disappointment, even defeat, in life. Things do not always go our way. But Djokovic’s quote provides us with some clues as to how we can “get over it.” He said,” it's not easy to handle, especially now, just after the wounds are still fresh, but, you know, you have to deal with it. It's not the first, or the last time that I have lost a tennis match.”

The fact is that losing sucks and accepting that there is emotional pain that goes along with that, is normal. I spoke with someone the other day who had been poorly (improperly) treated by a manager and she said “it’s OK.” I told her, “No, that’s not OK, and you have every right to feel angry.” I wondered whether we had somehow lost the right to express emotion in the workplace. However, along with the pain, it is important to put the disappointment in perspective. Djokovic acknowledged he was bitterly disappointed for himself and his country, but it was ONE tennis match. One loss didn’t make him a failure. What’s more, if I was a betting man, I would happily take a bet that he will be setting things straight at the U.S. Open in a couple of weeks time.

The next step is the learning phase. What exactly went wrong? Seek feedback. Where did things go off the track and how could things have been handled differently? Bottling up a perceived failure inside is both self-defeating and counter-productive. Constantly hitting the repeat button in your head as to how badly you “screwed up” can take you into a swift downward spiral. Rather, by being transparent, others who are not emotionally attached to the issue, can provide both balance, and, seen through a different set of eyes, often another perspective.

Low points hit us all, but colleagues/family members can often remind us of the things we have accomplished, and restoring self-esteem and confidence re-builds the optimism and motivation “to get back on the horse.” Whatever is learned from the experience, the important step is to move forward as quickly as possible.  

As simple and logical as the personal recovery process might seem to be, we all know that failure in some organizations can be fatal. Not every executive sees failure the way IBM’s Thomas Watson, Snr., did when he said, ”the fastest way to succeed is double your failure rate.” Albeit this same comment would not hit the lips of an executive managing a capital markets trading function, most innovators have understood that failure is a prerequisite to invention.

So what type of HR leadership do you provide as it relates to failure? Do we encourage failures to be discussed so we can collectively learn from mistakes, or is failure buried for fear of executive wrath? Do we truly believe that failures are a natural part of organizational progress and growth? If so, failure is a complement to success, but have we instilled this thinking in the ranks of our employees?

I believe there is a natural buffer role that HR must sometimes play in communicating how we manage failure. Let me explain. I believe a CEO has every right, and frankly must, challenge “accountable” executives when something goes wrong. If a project implodes, for example, the ability of an executive to reflect, diagnose and learn from mistakes, or oversights, is a crucial element of personal growth leading to increased responsibility.

Too many times, rather than accept his/her responsibility, I have seen executives throw colleagues under the bus. I am sure we can all point to executives who have perfected the “the Teflon aura.” Of course, the net effect down the hierarchy is that employees quite rightfully become fearful of failure. If leaders do not stand behind their employees, who will?

Over the years, I have had many employees ask me whether they should leave because of a project that did not live up to expectations. If the project was poorly conceived, carelessly put together and weakly managed, a new beginning might be the best route for sure, but if failure was due to some uncontrollable factors, then someone needs to make sure the internal messaging is that mistakes happen, but we MUST learn from them. That’s a message HR could deliver and one would hope that is the same message that the CEO would want employees to hear.

C.S Lewis once said, “failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” Jen Kish is the team captain of Canada’s rugby sevens team that won a bronze medal this week. She epitomized C.S Lewis’s insightfulness. Canada was defeated in the semi-final by Australia, the eventual gold medal winners. Kish commented, “After the loss we were devastated. The gold-medal dream was over but the loss doesn’t define us, it’s how you get up after the loss, and we rose to the occasion.” I am sure our Canadian athletes are well-versed with Vince Lombardi’s quote, “it's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up.” That’s a great message for ourselves and our employees.

Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and senior vice-president and chief talent officer at Foresters in Toronto.
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