Why is it so hard to talk about failure?

About ten years ago I started up a small section on a UK diving forum called “I learned about diving from that…” (ILADFT) which was based on a section within the RAF Flight Safety magazine section called “I learned about flying from that…” This part of the magazine was where aircrew would write in about their mistakes and close calls and others could learn from them and was probably one of the most widely read sections - much more interesting than Air Power Strategy!

ILADFT was to be the same. It took a little while to get going, and people would talk about things that went wrong but they often missed out the context which was frustrating because the devil is in the detail as they say.

The basic rule was that negative criticism was banned and posts which ridiculed divers for putting their hands up were stamped on quite quickly; it was the genesis of the ‘Just Culture’ work I have been doing over the years. It was also this that piqued my interested in diving incidents and how to prevent them - the same stories were coming up again and again and yet nothing appeared to be done to talk about them.

The same concept of failures occurring and failing to learn from these failure perpetuates nearly all domains. But why?

Failure is hard to talk about because it opens you up, it creates vulnerability.
I understand. People don’t want to feel vulnerable, especially if they hold influential positions. They want to minimise their failures. Doing so might seem harmless, but it’s vitally important for leaders to be able to discuss failures in a manner which shows they are human too. Not doing so can cause four very real problems:

1. If you can’t admit failure, you cannot connect with your team. 

While it’s true that peers and leaders/followers might not want to discuss their own failures, especially if it was because they ‘broke the rules’, but if they do, they are more likely to connect with those who do. A leader who has never failed at anything is either a human anomaly or a liar!! Even if the specific failure isn’t applicable to the team, simply admitting it helps them connect. Fundamentally, it shows you are human.

2. If you can’t admit failure, you won’t learn from it. 

Failure is only positive when you learn something from it and then make the necessary adjustments to reduce the likelihood of the event happening again. If you don’t do this, you cannot learn from outside perspectives and you’re more likely to stay in denial. When business leaders or managers talk about these ‘rare’ events candidly, many of them learn that their peers and fellow team members have also been in the same boat and it would have been great to know about such events beforehand. Whilst hindsight isn’t 20:20, it can certainly help you be better prepared.

3. If you can’t admit failure, you won’t tolerate it from others. 

In the business environment, leaders will openly say failure must happen for innovation to be present, but many will get upset at staff who fail or struggle. They know enough about failure not to punish it, but their attitude sends a loud, clear message that they weren’t happy — and that attitude shuts up their staff, closes down experimentation, and obliterates creativity. If you hold yourself up on a pedestal as never having failed, then you are likely to be critical of others when they do, which suppresses the discussion about failure and the subsequent learning from it.

4. If you can’t admit failure, you’ll find your own future failures tough to handle. 

Often this is an easy thing to miss. Forgetting about your failures means when your next failure happens, and it will, it’s so much harder to move on. As many who know me, when something goes wrong, I make it public. (Like the time I realised I’d left my passport at home after driving 90 mins to the airport for an overseas trip. Fortunately, my wife saved the day and I didn’t miss my flight although there was a price tag associated with that - we had a very nice meal out when I got back!)

When I get demoralised, I look back and remember how useful all my other failures have been, and realise “Hey ho, another one, time to move on, work out what I did wrong, adjust and then learn from it.” Feedback, even from ourselves, is essential if we are to develop.

Failure is a part of everyone's life. It is how we deal with failure that’s important. First we have to recognise we have failed, and that can be hard because we often don't get honest feedback. However, if we are clear about the feedback being about the observable activity and how it impacted the speaker, then conflict can be reduced. Kim Scott's book 'Radical Candor' is a great source of information on this. In addition, understanding the psychological needs of individuals means that you can head conflict and distress of at the pass by ensuring that you stay in a win:win or OK:OK position during the discussion.

I have failed loads in the past. Events in my diving regularly ended up on ILADFT in my own name rather than being anonymous. I still struggle in some part of the diving community because of a contentious paper I wrote in 2010 applying Human Factors theory to diving safety which was written in an emotional stance and was critical of the industry. My research project to provide evidence to back up the thesis is incredibly hard and isn't producing what I want it to because of a lack of resource and data. Running a consultancy is about dealing with failure all the time.

However, I know that every course I have delivered and every consultancy I have provided, I’ve learned loads!! Working with ICU consultants and nursing staff, senior diving instructors and instructor trainers, cardiac & thoracic surgeons and business consultants & coaches has provided me with brilliant opportunities for personal improvement. I always ask for honest feedback and I get it, although I do have to go digging sometimes. There is no doubt that hearing negative comments about something you have poured your heart and soul into is hard, but feedback is what it is. Take it, move on.

The main reason I get the feedback I do is because I have created the psychologically-safe environment in which the discussion of personal failure is encouraged, and it starts with me taking the stand in the opening parts of a course discussing my own failures in whatever domain I am in. Because of this feedback, my own courses have improved and my awareness of certain issues is clearer as a consequence. There always room for improvement, and feedback is always welcome.

Every event in life can be a learning opportunity, but only if we recognise the failure (or potential failure), how and why it happened, and make adjustments before the next encounter.

We can help others not only learn about the subject of the failure, but promote the fact that failure is normal and we needn’t hide it or from it.

Bottom line? We all need to understand whenever someone did something which ended badly, they very likely thought it made sense at the time and didn't think it would end in the way it did. If they did, they wouldn't have done it. By attributing 'human error' or 'it was one of those things' to whatever failure happened, we close the door on learning and the next time it might not be a near-miss or something easily recoverable.

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