Failing successfully: Making mistakes takes practice
In some countries, failure is considered part of the road to success, particularly in terms of entrepreneurship – but in Germany it’s a taboo subject. You avoid mentioning it. According to common consensus, someone who failed just didn’t think things through, was either unobservant or incompetent. This is precisely the mindset that suppresses innovation as it leaves no space for trial and error.
Failure is a common occurrence. It results from actions which collide with other actions or circumstances. Relationships can fail, negotiations can fail, and likewise, projects under your responsibility can fail – and with them oftentimes your own career plans. When politicians commit a grave mistake, they are expected to resign; when the soccer team doesn’t score any goals, the trainer must step down; and when managers make mistakes, they are fired (not only understandably so when they have broken the law, but also after failings that led to lower profit).
While the rivalry launches a product that receives cult status despite its imperfections, we Germans like to continue developing a product until it has reached perfection, consistent with German quality and German perfectionism. Consequently, mistakes are not tolerated career-wise either, especially in higher positions. How high is the given tolerance for failure in organizations and how can mistakes and failures in the professional life be dealt with personally?
Dust yourself off and try again
Founders of start-ups who have already failed once learn from their mistakes and give it a new try with larger start-ups. But in Germany, a culture of non-failing is prevalent. Someone who fails regardless must rise like a phoenix from the ashes and pretend their failure never happened. Entrepreneurs often manage to accomplish just that. They tough it out, get up again, take new risks and make it big in the end. What though happens to the employees? What if you are a project leader for a tech company and couldn’t deliver the software on time? What if you can’t always fulfill your superior’s expectations to the full extent? What if you’ve made a seriously wrong decision as a manager? Have you now completely failed and forfeit all your career opportunities? Are you left with the last option of searching for a new job in order not be considered a loser, in case you haven’t already been counted out? Will your boss’ speech ever stop ringing in your ears? What if you’ve been hoping for a promotion but all you keep hearing are lazy excuses? Does that mean your career plans have failed? Now what?
It’s a fact that failures are demotivating and lead to an inner frustration which can thus effect productivity levels. The very feeling of not completing tasks satisfactorily, not receiving approval for your work and solely being pointed in the direction of your mistakes instead of (small) successes results in a feeling of insecurity and dissatisfaction which is hard to escape. Your course of action should start with contemplating the underlying causes to why you are making mistakes and failing. In today’s work dynamics, it’s nearly impossible to avoid making mistakes entirely. Here’s how mistakes may happen in your daily work life:
- Lack of experience: Being new to the job – no matter if fresh from college or as an expert after switching jobs – often leaves you with the feeling of being all thumbs. New workplace culture, new processes, new colleagues and you haven’t yet created a network. New responsibilities and many unfamiliar tasks to which you must dedicate a large amount of your time. Combine this with a lack of structured onboarding, and you’ll get mistakes and wrong decisions. This can easily lead to a vicious circle: Your insecurity continues to grow as you keep making mistakes. If your employer neglects to provide you with a mentor, it’s best to single out an experienced colleague during your first few weeks, whom you can turn to whenever you are uncertain.
- Missing Qualifications: Often you will be handed new tasks out of the blue. A colleague quit surprisingly and there’s no replacement in sight – her tasks are placed on your desk. Only you haven’t got the slightest idea what she had been working on and you’re having enough trouble with your own projects as it is. The additional work as project leader is sold to you as good prospect and future career opportunity. Realistically though, you are neither technically prepared for this role nor do you have the necessary time available to learn the ropes. Nonetheless, the expectations are: “Just keep it running.” In these situations, all you can do is swim or drown!
- Time pressure: This might sound familiar: You are struggling with all your tasks and projects which are planned on an extremely tight time schedule. And even if you as a developer have spoken up from the beginning and called the schedule unrealistic, even if you have pointed out the risks and side effects, ultimately all your overtime won’t do you any good. The odds of making mistakes are not in your favor, disaster lies straight ahead.
- Financial pressure: This bears similarities to the previous point: In tech projects, reduction of cost is ubiquitous. Costs are being cut everywhere: regarding employee training, new software and hardware, resources and, once again, time. Work packages are being outsourced – but who trains the developers at the service providers’ facilities or in shared service centers? Training must take place along the way during regular webinars. One meeting ends up chasing the next, never leaving enough time for actual development work.
- Perfectionism: This phenomenon is a very personal matter. Particularly success-seeking perfectionists are often doomed to fail. Why? They lose themselves in detail, are never satisfied with the result, split up every process into even smaller processes and yet fail to meet their goal in the end because they are drowning in work.
- Excessively goal-orientated behavior: A pronounced focus on the result can also lead to failure. Especially if you lose track of the long-term picture. The digital age is not just about getting one result, but about many results from different perspectives. The lone warrior approach neglects important partnerships and connection points. When trying to achieve only your own goals, you will fail at the goals of others. Constructive coordination on an equal basis is paramount for reaching goals collectively.
- Rivalry culture: Organizations may sustain a culture of internal rivalry. Especially in large organizations it’s often all about playing political games in order to validate the existence of specific departments. Taking control of prestigious projects although the subsidiary company with its greater know-how would be better suited to handle them is also not unheard of. Small companies are not immune either: Your boss might depict the neighboring department as your enemy and rival against which you must hold your ground. Sales against IT department, project leadership against controlling, engineers against developers. In the end, there can only be losers.
- Being overzealous: This point bears similarities to perfectionism in the sense that being overzealous is an individual characteristic. Over a long time span, you deliver more than you are expected to, always under pressure, always way past your limit. You will either end up with a burn-out or your boss will become accustomed to this high level of productivity and react with disappointment if you deliver only 99%.
- Striving for recognition: This is another character trait defining the ambitious overachiever. Your self-worth depends on your professional success. You are incapable of acknowledging anything else. Lack of recognition is a pure catastrophe for this type of person. Every small mistake seems like a failure. You strive to control everything out of fear of not getting the credit. In this case too, failure is imminent.
- Fear and insecurity: Being afraid of mistakes results in making mistakes. Your insecurity holds you back from making a decision. Fear of a negative reaction prevents you from informing colleagues. Under these circumstances, things can’t move forwards while you avoid conflicts instead of risking a heated discussion which may help solve the problem.
Making the “why” transparent can at least prevent the same mistake from happening again. Yet even then, new mistakes will spring up, projects will fail and people in charge will become frustrated. The solution is this: understand mistakes and act with foresightedness! Don’t let frustration gain the upper hand and simply move on; motivate instead of using sanctions; work together instead of increasing pressure.
But what should I do if I’m an employee and have made a mistake that others may not even have noticed yet? Depending on the severity of the mistake, it should either be fixed at once or you should inform the people and colleagues involved. You may also seek assistance from your superior directly in order to contain further catastrophes. It’s important not to get caught up in excuses and assign the blame to others or to the circumstances. In an open dialog, you should be able to explain the mistakes and their causes. Offer a possible solution proactively. Don’t waste your boss’ time with long apologies but own up to your mistake and be constructive. Essentially, you should realize that making mistakes is no reason to bury your head in the sand.
If you are constantly made responsible for small and large mistakes you didn’t make to that extent, it’s time for a talk. And if that doesn’t help, it’s high time for changing your job and switching to an employer who is successful, innovative and allows room for mistakes.