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July 26, 2022 Nina Candido

You Failed! Now What? Tips for HR Leaders on Overcoming Failure

That’s right, you’re a seasoned, capable, well-respected HR leader with the weight of the world on your shoulders—or at least an entire company’s employees counting on you to succeed—and you blew it.

HR leaders, like all leaders, and indeed all people, fail. This is nothing new, and the best leaders understand that failure is not the end of the world. They know how to apply proven strategies that will enable them to move forward in positive ways. Among the most critical steps in moving forward is focusing more on finding learning opportunities than finding someone to blame.

Yet, despite these strategies’ practicality and proven benefits, it can be difficult for HR leaders to embrace them.

What is failure?

Understanding what failure really is and, more importantly, what it isn’t, is necessary to manage expectations and reactions when something doesn’t go exactly as planned. Formal definitions of failure describe it as meaning someone or something did not succeed. Such definitions can be seen as punitive because they suggest blame. Knowing we should be focusing more on finding learning opportunities indicates we may be looking at failure the wrong way.

Rejecting this definition, psychologist Ann Vertel defines failure based on effort rather than outcome, saying that true failure occurs when we quit or don’t learn. Everything else should be considered mistakes, and mistakes are necessary for learning what will or won’t work.  This definition separates success from failure rather than making one contingent upon the other—failing is not the opposite of success, and success is not the avoidance of failure.

Why is failure different for HR leaders?

  • We’re already working in one of the most stressful careers in the corporate world.
  • HR leaders are also known for putting their own care last.
  • The scope of responsibilities for HR leaders continues to expand, creating sometimes daunting tasks and deliverables, and HR headcount has not kept up with its expanded scope.
  • According to McLean & Company’s 2022 HR Trends Report, while overall HR effectiveness has increased, the perceptions of effectiveness among non-HR respondents are significantly lower.
  • The pressure to succeed is tremendous.
  • The tolerance for failure is zero—or is it?

Is the pressure to succeed driving us to treat mistakes as failures? 

Unfortunately, mistakes can feel like a failure, especially when we’re under tremendous pressure to succeed. The emotions we experience can include embarrassment, frustration, anxiety, anger, sadness, and shame. It’s easy to see how outcomes that trigger such intense feelings are viewed as failures. But before jumping to that conclusion, we should stop and take a second look at whether we’re basing our conclusion on effort or outcome.

Mistakes are an integral part of trial-and-error. They mean we’re trying, expect errors, and use the information learned from the trial’s results to try again. In this context, mistakes can be viewed as deliberate attempts to fail in order to learn as much as possible.

  • Changing our thinking, beginning with how we define failure vs. mistakes, makes it feel less devastating when things go awry.
  • Accepting that mistakes are a critical element to learning makes it not only acceptable but desirable to embrace our mistakes for what we can learn from them.

How to cope with mistakesYou Failed Now What Tips for HR Leaders on Overcoming Failure - man with hands on head feeling frustrated while sitting at desk

Despite understanding and accepting that mistakes are an important part of progress, they can still take an emotional toll when they happen. Applying the right coping strategies can help lessen their impact and allow us to move forward more quickly. Try these six tips:

  1. Accept your mistakes. Accepting accountability and the right amount of responsibility is the first step.
  2. Find the lesson(s) in your mistakes. Remember, mistakes are how we learn.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Don’t let the negative self-talk take over; it’s ok to make mistakes.
  4. Remember, you’re thinking about it more than anyone else. Don’t give it more attention than it needs to resolve.
  5. Figure out next steps. Take action to correct the situation and apologize if necessary.
  6. Let it go. Easier said than done, but holding on to mistakes prevents us from moving forward.

Don’t take it too seriously

This doesn’t mean treating it lightly, but when we stop and think about the worst possible outcome of the mistakes we all make, chances are there’s nothing catastrophic on the list. As HR leaders, we’re not flying airplanes or performing brain surgery—just to put things in perspective.

Yes, mistakes are embarrassing. But chances are they’re not the end of the world. And it’s not hard to imagine some mistakes we’ve made are entertaining, maybe even funny! Laughter is one of the best ways to lighten a situation, so let’s allow ourselves to find the humor when we take a stroll down memory lane.

To help lighten this topic, think about how you would complete this statement:

If at first you don’t succeed… _____________________________________.

Here are some ideas to consider:

If at first you don’t succeed…

…blame your parents.

…you’re running about average.

…you’ll get a lot of free advice from other folks who didn’t succeed either.

…redefine success.

…find out if the loser gets anything.

…hide all evidence that you tried.

…try doing what Human Resources told you to do in the beginning.

…hold on, let me overthink this.

A final word

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

—Winston Churchill

Whatever happens, keep moving forward until you get it better.

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Nina Candido

Nina Candido is a Sr. HR Leader with success working to achieve transformative outcomes in organizations experiencing rapid growth or M&A activity. She is a builder focused on unlocking individual and organizational potential and is passionate about creating environments where employees can thrive and grow beyond their own highest expectations.

Throughout the pandemic Nina turned some of her attention to identifying and implementing solutions for making remote environments conducive to employee engagement, growth, and learning.

Education Cornell University, ILR School—Master’s, Industrial & Labor Relations
Le Moyne College—Bachelor’s, Business Administration

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