Newsletter #433 – Handling Failure Successfully

I’m not a businessman but I find Harvard Business Review to be the most interesting, relevant and research-oriented publication that I read on a regular basis. The April 2011 issue, for example, is devoted to “Failure: How to understand it, learn from it, and recover from it.” Most articles have corporate implications but personal, career and coaching applications pervade the writers’ conclusions as well.

“Inappropriate responses to failure and to negative feedback can derail your career,” states an article on handling failure. “When a failure has occurred, don’t respond impulsively. It’s not always possible to right a wrong, but it’s almost always possible to make things worse.” Using data from “several hundred thousand managers from every industry sector,” the authors identify three broad categories of dysfunctional reactions to failure.

  • Blaming others involves finding fault, failure to admit any responsibility, and refusing to learn from feedback or constructive criticism.
  • Denying blame is marked by an unwillingness to admit that failure has occurred or a denial that oneself or one’s team was involved in any way. There is no openness to discussing or learning from what others see as failure.
  • Blaming oneself involves excessive self-criticism and harsh judgment that sometimes leads to seeing failures as bigger than they are or to “analysis paralysis” where self-blamers refuse to learn, forgive themselves, and move on.

Handling failure and blame in the right way is a key to personal growth and greater career success. How is this done?

  • Cultivate self-awareness. How do you handle failure or blame? What have you learned from past failure? How can you respond differently in the future?
  • In your team or in yourself, build an attitude where periodic failure is expected, where blame is de-emphasized and where learning from failure is valued.
  • Learn how others respond to failure or blame and learn to approach people with this awareness in mind.
  • Embrace new strategies. Listen to how others react. Think before you respond. Search for lessons in each failure situation.
  • Remember that analyzing failures and carefully analyzing successes can both help prevent further failure in the future.

What have you learned from failure? Please share your story.


  1. As usual great recap and information, each of these responses speak to the “threat response” that is easily triggered for people. David Rock’s SCARF model clearly addresses how we in coaching and business can expand leaders understanding of what goes on in our minds and body’s when given feedback. Fascinating work perfectly aligned with this Harvard article. I’d be happy to send a copy of the article to you, but I don’t think this post allows for that.

    My Best,


  2. Gary,
    I am surprised that you did not include anything related to the Christian world view in your post. Looking at things from an eternal perspective, what we perceive as failure or others consider failure may need to be re-evaluated in light of how it fits into a life being lived for the glory of God. Is God re-directing our path? Are we being tested or refined to learn more of who God is? Is God detaching us from the things of this earth? When we are in a situation that we or others consider failure, is certainly a great time to grow by asking many tough questions.


    1. Very well placed comment Bruce. There are many times in my life where I have failed. Sometimes it is clearly and defintively my fault. Other times I am not so sure. God does test us and allow us to fail, however if we look at a failure in retrospect, we may see God’s hand in it and see that we have grown because of it. The idea is the same, let us see what we can learn froim our failures rather than letting them get under our skin and causing further failures. Thanks for the article Gary. It has definetly opened my eye.

      God Bless


      1. I very much appreciate the comments by Bruce and Rudy. Of course you are right and I failed to include an important element in my post. It is not excusable but sometimes I get enthused about what I have read but in my desire to share what I am learning I forget where God is in the process. A lot of what gets published about success is very western, very American, very humanistic, and not very Christian. Your gracious but nudging posts are a good reminder for me to be more sensitive to how God is leading even in what I write in these weekly newsletters. Thanks

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