Resilience and Failure: Tolerance Matters

Resilience and Failure: Tolerance Matters

Procter & Gamble’s A. G. Lafley said in his Harvard Business Review interview:
I think I learned more from my failures than from my successes in all my years as a CEO.
I think of my failures as a gift. Unless you view them that way, you won’t learn from failure, you won’t get better—and the company won’t get better.

This is my fifth blog on Career and Workplace Resilience. The first four blogs on resilience discussed the art of bouncing back, social intelligence, how to explain life’s adversities, and how to move from a blaming mindset to a learning mindset. This final blog will explore SMARTER strategies to bounce forward when things did not go as expected.

When it comes to developing career resilience in the face of uncertainty or mistakes, self-awareness of strengths and social awareness of tolerations are two SMARTER skills that lift you and others up and move you and others forward.

Whereas self-awareness helps you understand the emotional back story (positive or negative) in the messages you’re sending, social awareness helps you understand the emotional impact of your messages on others. When I’m coaching clients on developing emotional resiliency, I coach a lot on developing social savvy, especially as a leader. Business consultants Ben Dattner and Robert Hogan suggest several socially tolerant communication strategies in “Can You Handle Failure?” (Harvard Business Review, April 2011) when delivering or receiving not so good news.

  • Listen first, communicate second. Most of us react first, and then reflect second, if at all. A leader may not seek or listen to feedback and information before reacting, especially when it comes to receiving or delivering bad news. Never assume you know what others are thinking or that you understand them until you ask clarifying questions. It is amazing what leaders can learn if they simply stop, look, and really listen.
  • Stop and reflect on both the situation and the people. An emotional pause provides time and space to see patterns and “read” the emotional climate before making assumptions. Social awareness is appreciating that each situation and person is unique and has context.
  • Feel and Think before you act. It is important to be aware, acknowledge and adapt behavior to create a positive emotional connection. A social connection can be made worse by overreacting in a highly charged situation, and the memory is hard to erase.
  • Search for a lesson. Look for nuance and context. Sometimes a colleague or a group caused the error or misjudged a situation, sometimes you did, and sometimes no one is to blame. Engage in tolerant communication to test hypotheses about why the “misstep occurred to prevent it from happening again.

Strategies to Learn From Failure

As a leader or colleague, how do you make it safe for people to report and admit to mistakes?

Harvard management professor Amy Edmondson delineates a “spectrum of reasons for failure” in “Strategies for Learning from Failure” (Harvard Business Review, April 2011), as summarized here:

  1. Deviance: An individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.
  2. Inattention: An individual inadvertently deviates from specifications.
  3. Lack of Ability: An individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions or training to execute a job.
  4. Process Inadequacy: A competent individual adheres to a prescribed, but faulty or incomplete, process.
  5. Task Challenge: An individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.
  6. Process Complexity: A process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.
  7. Uncertainty: A lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesired results.
  8. Hypothesis Testing: An experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed actually fails.
  9. Exploratory Testing: An experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to undesired results.

Notice how this spectrum progresses from mistakes that are blameworthy to those that could be considered praiseworthy. How many of the failures in your business are truly blameworthy? Compare this to how many are treated as blameworthy, and you’ll have a better understanding of why so many failures go unreported.

You cannot learn from your mistakes when the emphasis is on blaming . You cannot learn to become more resilient when your energy is tied up in assigning or avoiding blame.


What about you? How does your workplace encourage leaders and colleagues to learn more from failure or success? I’d love to hear from you, leave a comment.


Cynthia Kivland, Author and President Smart2Smarter Coaching, Training and Assessment Services has over twenty five years of accomplished career coaching experience working with very smart people, leaders and teams including MBA’s, military, scientists, CEO’s, and healthcare professionals. Join Cynthia’s Career and Workplace Resilience group on LinkedIn. To have a chat about coaching, training and career resilience resources Contact Cynthia.

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