Monday, March 12, 2007

The art of failure and the side-effects of social praise

My overall goal with this blog is share my experiences and my thoughts in hope that it may help someone else. Helping people is something I simply love to do and when I was offered the opportunity to be a supervisor I jumped at the chance. I was extremely excited to have a chance to help my team succeed and grow. I had a absolutely fantastic opportunity to work with employees ranging in age from 24 to 64 and I thought that such a range was great – the younger employees could learn the fundamentals from the older while the older learned some new tricks from the younger. I was beside myself excited about this but then I hit an unexpected road block – one that challenged me in a way I never saw coming.

I had a young guy working for me just a few years out of college, we will call him Jeff. I had hired Jeff and relocated him to my area because he seemed full of potential in his interviews. He was a good communicator, seemed ambitious, and portrayed himself as eager to succeed. I started training Jeff on my own and laid out a typical training schedule with him which consisted of several weeks with me and then working with the other members of the team. Everything was going great until we let him go off on his own. The complaints from our sales team came pouring in. They all liked Jeff as a person, stating that he was a good communicator and seemed eager to help but he would freeze up when it came time to deliver. He couldn’t execute on seemingly simple tasks when asked – he wouldn’t even attempt them. After probing and prodding Jeff, I finally came to the root cause – he was deathly afraid of failing. He was so scared to fail that he wouldn’t even attempt to try something.

I would love to tell you that Jeff was the only one, but he wasn’t. I had a handful of employees who showed the same traits. All had this fear of failure but they would make some kind of excuse for why they couldn’t perform the task. I tried coaching them to just try and if they make a mistake it’s ok – just learn from it. Despite all my effort their inaction landed them reputations of laziness and, worse, liars as they would construct excuses and shift blame elsewhere. It was a tremendously disappointing situation but I learned from it.

The lesson learned here is that we all need to know how to fail, successfully. What do I mean by that? Well I don’t mean that if you know you are going to fail then fail spectacularly. I mean that failure needs to be part of our learning experience and we need to know how to use it to our advantage not fear it. The reality is that many of us are taught (be it not intentionally) to fear failure. When we tell our children that they are smart we are praising the result of their work – not the effort put forth. Subsequently, the child wants to succeed all the time so that they can get praised and eventually will not attempt anything if there is a chance of failure.

This idea has been studied with much success by Dr. Carol Dweck and a great article by Po Bronson about her research can found here. The article does a great job of explaining this issue and demonstrates some of Dr. Dweck’s amazing findings. Dr. Dweck’s study demonstrates how social praise (as Bronson refers to it as) can have the inverse outcome of what is intended. I highly suggest reading the article as I think this matter is critical to determine one’s success in life.

I wonder how many adults carry this fear into their work lives seriously stunting their chance for success in life. Failure should be looked at as a precious learning opportunity and should be treated as such by all involved. Plenty of time and effort should be put into learning what went wrong and how it can be done differently. Don’t be so quick to rule yourself out as the cause – this is a tremendous opportunity for self-assessment and reflection. Everyone makes mistakes, but if we learn from them and try with all our effort to not repeat them, success will follow.

So how can we apply this in our day to day lives? Next time you are fear struck by a task because of the possibility of failure, consider what you may learn for that task even if you do fail. Also, don’t be so quick to judge and blame others that fail. Teach your children that if they try hard and fail, to learn from it and try again. Focus on the effort, not the result with your children and yourselves.

Failure is opportunity for those who can understand and embrace it.


penelope said...


Congratulations on the blog! I look forward to reading lots of posts.

Re failure: I have noticed that failure is different depending where you are in life. Failure when you are one month out of college, for example, does not have the same weight as failure when you are the single supporter of four kids.

So maybe this means we should aim to fail a lot early in life. For example, failure as a five year old is actually fun, if the parent makes it fun.


Jaerid said...

Penelope -

Excellent point. The impact of failure can fluctuate greatly and one should always carefully measure what that impact could be before setting out.

Also, your point about having more failure early in life is true. While I don't think anyone should to aim to fail, I would agree that younger individuals should be more willing to take calculated risks. The benefits of those learning experiences can be tremendous.

The frequency of failure will naturally taper off with age as well as we learn (hopefully) from our mistakes.

Thanks for the comment!