“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” – J.K. Rowling
Delinquo ergo supero – “I have failed, therefore I will succeed” (rough translation)
Delapsus/Delapsa surrexi — “Having fallen, I have arisen.” (Delapsa for female)
Orta recens quam pura nites – “Newly risen, how brightly you shine.”
Not too long ago, I wrote a blog piece about the Human Condition and the Leadership Condition. As a refresher, the Human Condition is the interplay between the viva activa (active life) and viva contemplativa (contemplative life) – Hannah Arendt. I then went to describe the Leadership Condition, as “viva praetōrēs” (leader of life), as the cognitive stasis in the mind of the leader that lets them focus on the betterment of their followers. Here the leader is not just someone with a specific title or leadership role in an organization, but everyone, regardless of their station in life. For someone to be a leader of life, they must have needed to try, fail, overcome failure, continue to try, and whether success comes or not, they do not give up. For they are always rising, never afraid to try.
Fear is crippling. Jones, Papadakis, Orr, & Strauman (2013), writing about the cognitive processes in response to goal failure, found that when people fail to make progress towards their personal goals (including professional ones), they get sucked into an intensifying and self-reinforcing loop of negative emotional (affective) states of anxiety and depression. Such a paralyzing state can prevent people from trying anything, let alone anything new. Is it mindset (Dweck, 2007)? Or is it something deeper, ingrained in our genetic code that prevents us from trying, so we don’t fail, and therefore we survive. The survival of the physical body, ensures that we live to fight another day or is it live to run away another day? These are questions I do not have the answers to, but can definitely postulate that early in our childhood, some conditioning (either genetic or by nurture) appears to have placed an extraordinary amount of emphasis on success and that failure has to be shunned at all costs. Despite this, there exist people who are not afraid to try, but are heavily outnumbered by most people who are afraid to try for the fear of failing.
Having set out to write about failure, the business of failure (there is a big business there on failure – self-help stuff, self-help gurus, motivational literature/gurus etc.), and the idea of failing to even try, I feel I have to touch on two connected topics – 1] Mental Health and 2] Assessment and Performance Evaluation. For the first, neither do I have the expertise nor the knowledge to comment about, other than that being aware of the impact of conditioning someone against failure and its effect on mental health or vice versa, is a first step in learning to recognize it, in oneself and others, and doing what needs to be done to help someone deal with it. For the second, while assessment and performance evaluation are expected to be objective, context driven, and bias free, they are often far from any of them. People, constantly in fear of being judged, assessed, and evaluated and expecting the outcomes of these judgements/assessments to be critical of them as people, tend to do just enough to get by and not do anything innovative, for fear of failure.
In the educational sphere, one assumes that the primary purpose of any assessment is to improve the student’s progress towards their learning outcomes, while informing the educator of the appropriate steps they would need to take to scaffold this progress. The educator provides diagnostic, summative, normative, and formative assessment on the student’s performance, part of which can be the recognition that in each of these cases, the student’s perception is that they did not “meet” or “exceed” certain criteria, laid out by the teacher, and hence are receiving that particular feedback. While teachers are trained in providing such feedback, students often are not and learning to deal with each kind of feedback needs them to become resilient and adopt different learning habits to progress towards their goals. So, if they “did not meet” the criteria, is there an explicit or implicit sense of “failure”. I believe teachers are trained not to use the term failure. Is there is a difference when people use “did not meet the criteria/expectations” or “did not pass”, or “failed”?
Cut to the workplace, performance evaluation on a job or task is conducted on a regular basis for all employees regardless of their title or position in the organization. A CEO’s performance is evaluated by the Board of Directors in quite the same way as an intern’s is by their supervisor. Performance management at the workplace, however, has had its share of issues over the years, particularly with respect to defining the metrics for success (often not aligned properly), the standards for achieving the metrics are unreasonable or too high, feedback is sparse for detailed feedback is time consuming, and follow up can appear to be micromanaging, and a host of other issues that are specific to an organization. In this context, the impact of any assessment, particularly the poor ones, good or bad, can be stressful on employees and begin to take a toll on the mental disposition of the employees.
In the effort to manage poor performance, whether at school or at work, one might need to consider the vagaries of assessment rubrics or the lack of any, how assessment criteria are set up, the impact that assessment is likely to have on an individual’s mental disposition and actual improvement on their performance, their preparedness to accept feedback and deal with setbacks when the assessment is not positive, and finally, does it mean that they succeeded or failed or whether they are themselves successes or failures.
The key, I surmise, then appears to be the ability of the assessor (educator or work place manager or even a parent) to teach their wards (students, direct reports, or children) to build some resilience to face obstacles in their progress towards an effort (learning, work task, or behaviors). If we can train people to strive for progress, while understanding that there will be times when the progress will be halted or slowed down and if they failed at a task, it is not because of lack of trying, but for probably some other underlying or overt cause, then there will be progress. Part of this training is to allow people to reflect on their efforts towards completing the task. This will allow them the space and time to figure out why they did not complete the task successfully, learn from it, and possibly overcome the obstacles the next time around. The reflection on why the effort failed or stalled, will allow them to identify the cause(s) and progress. Such an effort by educators and managers will allow people a safer way to manage their work, their own stress levels, and have a positive impact on their performance. People may then try something new, something different, or something innovative, for they are not afraid to try.
Maybe, then, failure is an option?
Binod Sundararajan, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Management and Associate Director at the Rowe School of Business teaching International & Intercultural Management for undergrads and Sustainable leadership for the MBA. He has been awarded the A. Gordon Archibald Award. His Selected Publications include “Using stakeholder role play in business cases to teach management and communication” and “Lean, Ethical Business Communication”.