Failure isn’t cool. Neither is weakness

“Failure is not a great well of lessons. ”¨Don’t think it’s a prerequisite for success.”
Jason Fried

I listened to a short riff by Jason Fried of 37signals recently (the podcast is available here) in which he says, “Failure is not cool. Don’t get into it.”

He asks why we will insist on thinking of failure as character-building, when what we really aim to build up are our successes, not our failures. If you make failure out to be “cool” and you concentrate on learning from your mistakes, you’re only learning what not to do next time. Isn’t it way better, he asks, to learn from your successes instead, and continue to parlay on what went right?

Makes sense to me. It’s not a good idea to keep catch-phrases like “fail early and often” in the language of your work culture when failure isn’t what you actually want. In Managing with Aloha we will say that “mistakes are cool” to recognize that mistakes are part of the learning process, but we do stop short of being okay with repeated mistakes, and with failure, because truth is, we’re not!

Fried later wrote, in a follow-up article on Signal vs. Noise:

“I don’t understand the cultural fascination with failure being the source of great lessons to be learned. What did you learn? You learned what didn’t work. Now you won’t make the same mistake twice, but you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time. You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.”

“There’s a significant difference between ‘now I know what to do again’ and ‘don’t do that again’” It’s true: Everything is a learning experience. Good and bad, there’s something to be learned. But all learning isn’t equal.”

I think this reasoning applies to strengths and weaknesses as well.

When doing performance assessments, managers continue to operate within a misplaced focus on weaknesses, when strength-building is what will get them far better results.

Relevance, and setting expectations

I will never, ever forget something an employee once said to me in an annual performance review, as we both sat in that dreaded annual appraisal meeting mandated by our employer, with the company’s check-off-the-standard-box form on the table between us. Thankfully this happened pretty early in my management career, and I did catch my mistake before repeating it into a dismal failure.

We had been talking about something the employee had screwed up, and he reached out both his hands to lie them flat on the review form and cover it up as a way to make me look up at him, stop talking, and listen.

“Got it already Rosa, can we change the subject and get through this faster? Believe me, when I make a mistake, I know it, and I don’t need you to remind me about it. What I need you to help me with, is seeing when I do something right, and I haven’t yet figured out that you like it, and it’s something I need to keep doing.”

“My screw-up sucked. But you know what really sucks? I’m still not sure I know exactly what I should do next time. Tell me what you want, and let’s  move on.”

What a lightbulb moment! He was telling me that he dreaded another mistake happening way more than I did, my harping on the mistake was like rubbing salt into his wound, and I wasn’t doing a damn thing to help him make sure the mistake didn’t happen again as failure just waiting to happen.

That conversation became a lesson we’ve now woven into our Managing with Aloha coaching for managers as,

“People catch their own weaknesses.
Your job, is to catch and encourage their strengths,
and those strengths aren’t usually clear.”

See here’s the thing: RELEVANCE. Contextual relevance, with the context being your workplace. Similar to failure and success, weakness and strength is either relevant to what you need, or irrelevant. Just as Fried says, “all learning isn’t equal,” neither are strengths, for honestly? Nobody cares about a strength you have unless it is useful to them too.

This creates a perfect opportunity for managers to manage better. Managers help their staff best, when they clearly define the workplace relevance where strength-associated activities matter, and count in better performance results. What we normally refer to this as, is “setting expectations” but we stop short of making the expectations crystal clear.

For instance, an employee can feel they are good with numbers, and they will call it a strength in analytical thinking, but “numbers” and the mathematical application of numerology is a pretty huge arena of possibility: Are you looking for strength with measurement? With statistics? With numerical classification of asset inventory? With pattern and sequence? With rounding-off calculation out in the field? Or with macro wizardry in an Excel spreadsheet?

Here’s another common strength self-assessment you will usually hear in a job interview, one which really doesn’t tell you very much at all: “I’m good with people.” Which people? Customers and comfort with the welcoming process and art of the sale, or co-workers where you rely on an insider’s language and peer-to-peer coaching?

Let’s connect our Alaka‘i lessons-learned:

Here’s a self-coaching plan for you, the Alaka‘i manager, using the free resources this blog offers:

Step 1— M/L 70-30: Reduce your Leadership to a Part-time Gig in 2010. Use The 30-70 Rule in Leading and Managing, for reviewing it can help you think about this in both a practical and intentional way. Besides the productivity slant of it, the articles cover the intentions we bring to leading (and creating workplace energies) and managing (to channel those newly available energies).

Step 2— Leading in 30: Post before this one, we spoke of the difference between acceptable behavior and accomplished behavior in moving performance forward in a better, stronger way. Accomplished behavior is the way you can better identify the strengths you need in your own workplace: Feeling good isn’t the same as feeling strong. Define your contextual differences.

Step 3— Managing in 70: Is the 70% you must devote to your day-to-day efforts, and it is what today’s article is all about. Kick “failure is cool” out of your language of intention, for success is what’s cool. Then get this to be real in your managing: “People catch their own weaknesses. Your job, is to catch and encourage their strengths, and those strengths aren’t usually clear.” Help them get clear, and be successful.

Photo Credit: Pipe Cleaner Muscle Man by Bob.Fornal on Flickr