As a leader using coaching approach to managing people you need to be comfortable with the concept of failure. We as human beings are not perfect and each of us makes mistakes that may lead to failure. If you follow some of the thoughts presented in “Don’t manage. Empower!” and “Mentoring by telling stories”, when you guide your team by asking questions, giving suggestions and mentoring without giving too much specifics you need to understand that people will fail… and that it is fine.
This is very easy to say but may not be that easy to do. At each level of management structure we have certain responsibilities that correlate to our abilities. If if you are an individual contributor and you fail at your task it probably won’t bankrupt the company. If you are the CEO and you fail it may well lead to big problems for the company. At the same time you are better equipped with the necessary knowledge. It is always an equation of risk versus benefit. Just remember that risk means not only direct risk of not achieving the goal but also indirect risk (or opportunity cost) of you not being able to focus your time and energy on other things that may bring even bigger value. This also means that you can allow for failures only in a team that has the right people in the right positions. If you have a team member who lacks the skills necessary for his particular role than allowing for failures can be dangerous as that person won’t be able to realize that there is a failure in the progress.
Recognize them fast
Recognize that something doesn’t work and stop doing it. One of the human’s traits that make it especially difficult to recognize failures fast and stop doing them is our believe that we know what we are doing and if only we put more energy into it we will succeed. This leads to behavior that instead of stopping something that doesn’t work we double our effort and do more of it in hopes of getting different results. Let’s be realistic. If something doesn’t work don’t be afraid to admit it and try to limit your over-optimism and self-confidence. If your current efforts don’t lead to desired outcomes just stop it and try something new.
Learn from them
Even when you admit a mistake and stop doing a particular activity that led to the mistake you still need to figure out the root cause and learn from it. There is no point of stopping doing one thing that doesn’t work only to replace it by something else that tackles the problem in pretty much the same way. If something doesn’t work, stop it and try something completely different. Not just slightly different. Start from completely opposite direction and use completely new approach.
For example, if your recruiter have consistently troubles finding a specific skillset on the job market and you know you will need lots of people with that skillset in the future what do you do? You can get second recruiter (meaning doing more of that what doesn’t work), or you can change the recruiter (getting someone else who will be doing essentially the same mistake) or you can approach it from completely new angle and train your current team in using different techniques, tools and channels. The first two approaches are just postponing the inevitable and are essentially preventing you from failing fast. You will still fail, it will just take you longer.
You need to create environment where people won’t be afraid to take risks and that means once they fail and learn from it they can be certain that you won’t be reminding them of that particular failure for the rest of their lives. This is especially important in performance management as you need to carefully consider what failures and how you want to punish. If you reflect every failure in the performance review and you cut bonuses for the team they will be more risk averse in the future. They will not act next time.
The one failure you shouldn’t allow
Not acting may be sometimes also a mistake that leads to failure. The problem is that this is very often type of failure that is not immediately recognized and thus you will not learn anything from it. It is the type of failure that may lead to bad performance in couple of months so it is difficult to spot and correct today. Typically, it would be failure to deal with low performing employee, failure to develop your team, failure to lead. Because things are looking fine today you may even get your promotion for job well done, but in reality you are failing miserably. You are failing to act. It is not something your boss will see. In fact, the moment you start to act would be the moment when you make it visible that something is wrong and you may not earn your promotion today, but it will prevent issues in the future. You as a leader need to recognize situations like these and appreciate people who fail fast in failure of not acting.
To sum it up you need to be comfortable with the fact that you or your team will fail from time to time. The important aspect is not to worry about failure, be comfortable with it and use it as a learning opportunity. To use the positive side of a failure you need to ensure one thing. If you are going to fail, then fail fast. Fail fast, learn from it and move on and tackle the problem again from different side armed with the knowledge you just gained.
Twitter type summary: “It is fine to fail. Just make sure you fail fast. The only thing you shouldn’t tolerate is a failure to act.”
How do you see failure? Do you see it as a disaster that cannot be taken back or as a learning opportunity? How do you deal with people who failed?