Failure is Not a Four-Letter Word

Figuring out systematic ways to dis-empower failure begins with recognizing that failure is a normal part of the human experience and a normal part of any organizational experience.
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Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, I spoke to a group of executives about my research with Tupperware Brands that explores ways companies can activate women's self- confidence. Much press has been dedicated to "the confidence gap" -- the idea that women "self-handicap" because they lack confidence relative to men. Women who do not believe in themselves are less likely to try a new challenge, such as selling Tupperware, negotiating a raise, or leading a work team. Yet, without proof of their own success, these women never get the chance to change their own internal narratives about their abilities.

In my work as faculty director of Georgetown University's Women's Leadership Institute, I refer to this as the "confidence cycle" because decades of psychological research show that attitudes (such as belief in one's self, or self-confidence) follow behaviors. In other words, successful execution breeds confidence. Therefore, women cannot wait until they are confident about their ability before jumping in and tackling something new. They have to just go for it.

Yikes! I can hear the resistance now. "I cannot (fill in the blank here: lead a team, ask for more money, present my ideas before a large audience, start my own business)! What if I fail?"

Ah, failure... The f-word. It must become the focus for any initiatives by companies to activate the confidence cycle.

Figuring out systematic ways to dis-empower failure begins with recognizing that failure is a normal part of the human experience and a normal part of any organizational experience. Half of marriages in the United States now end in divorce; most organizational marriages (mergers or acquisitions) fail within three years; a quarter of CEOs are dismissed every year.

These are not the stories we tend to share, at least not in a business context. Organizations bias their selection of stories to highlight the triumphs. As we celebrate promotions, quarterly earnings, and new product successes, we risk making these examples more salient than their true rate of occurrence. Not only can this lead to various cheating behaviors (the classic example being to exaggerate performance in the short term, reasoning it will be possible to make it up in the near-term future), this selection bias sets up unrealistic expectations for future performance. All outcomes are a product of solid effort and a random component of luck. Naturally, we do not always experience good luck. To the extent that we internalize these standards of above average success, we risk chipping away at our self-confidence.

Unfortunately, we seem to live in a time when failure is almost sinful. Presidential candidates swagger and boast, "I am not a loser!" Universities struggle to dampen grade inflation, which has become rampant because everyone's psychic survival depends upon being a winner. Coaches spare children the pain of failure and award trophies for simply existing on a team roster.

I want to start a counter-narrative: I have failed! I have failed in big ways (my own first marriage) and small (more journal rejections than I can even count). We need to start sharing these stories to remove the teeth from the bite of the f-word. When we publicly acknowledge and share our failures we normalize them. Failure is common, not rare. Failure is inevitable and sometimes painful, but not a sign of impending doom. It need not cause suffering.

Judging by the overwhelmingly positive response to this idea at Davos, I suspect many people share my relief at being able to expose and accept my own failures. Maybe that's the first step on the road to success.


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