Motivational Failure

Some clichés endure for good reasons. Cat posters exhorting us to “hang” in there adorably/annoyingly acknowledge a universal truth: you’re going to mess up.

Own it. Learn from it. Use it to grow and teach others.

A recent First Round article highlights the importance of stories. What is a compelling example of a time you failed, persevered, and prevailed? As a leader, how can you share that experience with your team in a way that encourages courage?

Communicating vulnerability can make you more relatable and can instill your team with the confidence to take risks. Don Faul, CEO of Athos and formal Pinterest Head of Operations, suggests crafting language around failure and inspiration carefully in advance. It’s important, he says, to make sure the story leaves the listener with a sense of potential. Faul also recommends experimenting on one or two trusted colleagues and tweaking your story based on their response. “It gives you a chance to strike your own balance between vulnerability and confidence.

This is an important point. Keep in mind the value in these stories is to help build confidence from a feeling of empathy, not to wallow in doubt! In another article, Senior Gametime Strategist and Fast Company writer Jackie Berkery suggests “vulnerability in moderation.”

The benefits of vulnerability get sidelined when your team hears you doubt your own management skills. Most of the time, your team needs someone who can inspire confidence, display composure and consistency, and lead by example. While there’s still ample room for showing empathy, owning your mistakes, and developing an approachable, open management style, expressing doubt in your abilities as a manager is not an effective strategy.

If “motivational failure” seems like an oxymoron, the NY Times recently published a piece with helpful examples. Researchers from Northwestern University compared two cohorts of young scientists. The groups were statistically identical except that one  had narrowly succeeded in a attaining a National Institutes of Health grant whereas the other had narrowly failed. Ten years later, the initially less successful group had gone on to more impactful careers. After controlling for various factors, the research team concluded that the higher performing group’s later success was causally connected to its initial setbacks.

The same article also suggests keeping a “failure résumé. Despite seeming a bit daunting, such a record can be a powerful tool to track your lessons and progress. It can also,  somewhat ironically, help to build confidence. Dr. Melanie Stephan, a lecturer at Edinburgh Medical School and the first to popularize the failure résumé says, “Sometimes I look back on them and see how much I’ve actually struggled to be where I am. That’s a powerful reminder that I deserve to be here.”