How to develop your relationship with failure

During 2002, I was in charge of the maintenance of an industrial plant that was part of a smelter in New South Wales. It was 3pm on a Friday afternoon. I had done some calculations to determine how much bolt tension should be applied to the bolts in the pipework of a critical part of the plant. 

So, when one of the team was tightening up the bolt and asked if I am sure that he should tighten it to what I had calculated, I said very confidently, of course. The problem is that I am not a mechanical engineer. I had an electrical background, so I was not really the right person to be doing those calculations.  

When the fitter tightened the bolt (and based on my incorrect calculations), it cracked the cast iron pipework. Which meant that the plant could not go back into service. The pipework was an odd shape, and it could not be weld repaired. It had to be rebuilt from scratch. Which would take between 24 and 48 hours, due to the manufacturing process required.  

In short, the plant was then out of service for the time that it took to obtain a new section of pipe, to repair the damaged one. The material cost of that mistake was hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in lost production. Not a small loss for that business. And not a small failure on my part. 

To this day, that decision rates as probably my worst failure in the workplace, the most expensive at least. And probably the most embarrassing. Because if a someone better qualified than me would have done the calculations, they would have allowed for the stress point in the pipework, where there was a spacer (it wasn’t flat pipe on pipe, that the bolt was doing up).  

And you know the old saying that you don’t get remembered for the good things you do, only the one failure. I think that is what happened in this case. Which was tough. In the end, it happened, and I was up all night (which was not uncommon at that workplace) working with the supplier to get the pipe rebuilt.  

After plenty of thinking and feeling bad, about that incident, here is what I learnt about dealing with failure.  

1. Resist rumination 

Rumination, as opposed to reflection, is overthinking what happened. Going over it in your head, with a negative perspective on the incident. Talking yourself down and giving yourself a hard time about how silly you were, and how badly you performed. And how badly others are going to think of you. Rumination is negative self-talk, and it keeps you stuck in the past. 

Reflection on the other hand is more of a positive review of what happened. With a forward focus. Develop the mindset that failure is ok, it is part of life, and it happens. If you are out there trying new things, that is. Reflection is about knowing that you are ok as a human. Knowing that your intent was right, and you did not intentionally mean for this situation to occur. It’s about being gentle on yourself and knowing that you will find a way (with a future focus) to prevent this same thing from happening again. Reflection helps you learn about what went wrong, and why. 

In my experience, this is the toughest thing to do. To change your thinking from how bad the situation is, to what you could learn. Reframing is a skill that can help here. It took me months to feel better about the pipework failure. When I got the lesson, though, which was that I should have got some support with the technical decisions I was making, I felt better. 

From a psychological perspective, reflection is the key skill that will let your subconscious mind know that you are ready to deal with a similar situation into the future. Subconsciously, you will have a level of fear or anxiety about the situation, and that fear destroy your confidence. Because your subconscious will keep you from being in a similar situation, because you are not ready to deal with it. Until you get the learning from the failure, that is! 

The questions you should be asking yourself to help you reflect should be around what you can learn from the situation. 

2. Overt ownership 

Dealing with failure is about taking ownership for what happened. Overt ownership is not simply reporting the failure or sharing it with your leader. It is about completely and openly owning it. 

By doing what it takes to make the situation right. If it can be.  

This is the one that I see too often as a coach. People going to their leaders thinking they have taking ownership by admitting or ‘owning up to’ a failure or a mistake. This is completely not overt ownership. To me, this is covert ownership. That is thinking you are taking ownership but handing the issue over to someone else. Uncool. 

Overt ownership means doing everything in your power to remedy the situation. Fixing the issue. Addressing what happen. Not giving it to someone else to fix. 

The upshot of overt ownership is that you feel way better about the situation because you are getting into action. And you go to your leader with the action plan, not the failure or the mistake. It makes for a different discussion. A discussion with a more positive spin. 

I went on the journey with the manufacturer and worked day and night (literally) to make sure that the pipework was repaired as soon as it could be.  

The questions you should be asking yourself to help you take overt ownership are around what you can do to address the situation and repair any issues that have been created. 

3. Future focus 

Having a future focus is really the outcome of resisting rumination and overtly owning your part in the failure or the issue. Having a future focus is about focusing on what you are going to do differently moving forward. And into the future. 

From what you have learnt, and from what you have done to rectify the situation, it is then a matter of where to from here. What are you going to change in your behaviour or your decision making that will ensure that you don’t let the same thing happen again? 

Having a future focus starts right now. In this very instant. Get into action. Being on purpose. And knowing that into the future you won’t make the same mistake because you have changed your thinking or your processes to set yourself up for success. 

For me, this was a matter of ensuring that I put processes in place to get the technical support I needed, when I needed it. 

The questions you should be asking yourself to help you have future focus are around what needs to be put in place to prevent recurrence of the issue. 

So, how do you develop your relationship with failure? Learn from the situation, do what it takes to rectify it in the moment, and think about what you need to do to prevent the same thing from occurring into the future. 

And know that failure is normal. One failure doesn’t define you. You’ve got this! 

And could you please do me a favour, and share this with leaders everywhere? This is an important topic for leaders. 

And of course, click the image below if you’d like to chat about what leadership means to you.

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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