Failure: The Foundation for Success

Posted by in Articles | September 23, 2011

When things go wrong, many people take any action necessary to distance themselves from responsibility. CYA (sometimes referred to as “Cover Your Actions”, and sometimes not) is a practice all too common in contemporary corporate cultures. Yet, when something goes right, these very same people can often be found elbowing their way to the head of the ‘give me credit’ line. But recent research reveals that to spot the outstanding performers in a crowd, look for those who don’t shy from responsibility for shortcomings and are quick to share rather than take credit for success.

People who routinely claim credit for the success of an operation and reject responsibility if the same operation fails are displaying characteristics associated with low achievers, poor performers, and individuals with limited expertise. This behavior pattern is, to put it bluntly, representative of a person who will achieve little and seldom realize their full potential. Organizations that foster a fear of failure by firing or otherwise punishing individuals who accept responsibility for failure cultivate a culture of mediocrity and can expect little real future growth. When people are afraid to make mistakes, it is safe to do the standard and rely upon tradition to guide practice rather than reach beyond the ordinary and attempt original solutions.

The champion of failure: Thomas A. Edison.
The famed inventor and entrepreneur, Thomas Edison, characterized his career as one of failure, because he estimated that it took about 10,000 failures on any particular project until he reached success. He therefore fathered far more failures in his lifetime than he ever did successes. Edison did not aspire to fail, and his failures were hardly the result of incompetence or a lack of effort. Rather, he realized real success and innovation were born of trial and error. To succeed you need to try, and very often fail. When you look at a problem like Edison did, you realize that in any endeavor, a long trail of trials is going to be accompanied by a long trail of errors, miscues and underdeveloped decisions. Failures are an inevitable part of getting better. Shouldering the responsibility for failure and learning from mistakes are critical steps in the improvement process.
This same perspective is found in the corporate champions of today. In his research titled “Good to Great,” a study of greatness in corporate America, Jim Collins found that CEOs at the great companies were quick to credit their colleagues for success, while bearing the full burden of responsibility for any failures experienced during their tenure. Interestingly enough, individuals who were quick to claim personal credit for corporate success most often led the ‘good’companies (i.e., those who never made the leap to greatness). When results were poor, these individuals looked not to themselves, but to others or outside factors on which to hang blame.

Gaining a sense of control and responsibility.

Research on the development of expertise reveals that beginners are so focused on learning workplace regularities and following rules, they seldom feel any personal control over the conditions and events they encounter. They, therefore, lack a sense of responsibility for the results of their own actions.

The failure to close a contract or make a sale, as examples, often lead beginners and under-performers to attribute the failure to external factors such as a lack of support, insufficient time, too much competition, or the other party for not being interested, available, or capable. To the underperformer, he or she did everything correctly and appropriately, and so the reason for failure resides outside their sphere of influence.

Underperformers lose no sleep over poor results because it was not their fault and they are not responsible. Consequently, they put little effort into learning from their mistakes or reworking a failed attempt into a successful conclusion. High performers, however, think and act differently.

Experts possess a strong sense of personal responsibility.

One hallmark of a champion is that they believe they have a great deal of control over their destiny. The noted psychologist, Albert Bandura, called this ‘self-efficacy’. High achievers feel a strong personal involvement in and responsibility for success and failure. They hold themselves accountable for problems encountered and believe the workable solutions reside within both their abilities and sphere of influence. They believe they can make a difference, and they act on that belief. Experts cannot be mollified in their failure. They are results driven and success oriented. The outcome of failure for the expert is to learn what went wrong and then determine what needs to be done to succeed. Because they believe it is entirely within their skills, abilities and responsibility, they work tirelessly to turn failure into success. Perhaps it was best put by Thomas Edison when he said “Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.”

© Copyright Performance Matters, Inc. All rights reserved.

About the Author – Paul G. Schempp

Dr. Schempp, president of Performance Matters, Inc., is a professional speaker, coach and consultant. Paul has more than 25 years of experience in the fields of research, teaching and professional development. Individuals and organizations in business, education and sport have elevated their expertise and achieved exceptional performance by working with Dr. Schempp.

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