Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

6 Ways to Talk About Failure Productively

When we land a new client or win a big case, we naturally want to talk about it.

But it’s just as important to discuss those occasions when things don’t go right. And law firms that encourage candid discussions of failures are healthier, happier and more productive places.

The New York Times recently ran a story titled “Talking About Failure is Crucial for Growth.”

“Even though most people prefer to process failure internally and quickly move on for fear of causing a scene or seeming unprofessional, taking the time to reflect on and communicate about unwanted outcomes can go a long way in creating more congenial, trusting and ultimately productive workplaces,” writes author Oset Babur in the piece. “But first, we have to talk about it.”

Here are six takeaways from the story:

  1. Recognize that failure can affect us as intensely as physical pain. The embarrassment of losing a court hearing or making an error in a case can be devastating to one’s self-esteem. It can also cause physical symptoms – headaches, insomnia, muscle pain, digestive disorders. “We respond that way, and then we feel bad about responding that way, and so we try to cover it up instead of learn from it,” says Bradley Staats, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler Business School. “We shouldn’t be ashamed of the reaction. It is natural.”
  2. Discussing failure promotes growth. “I believe that almost everyone can benefit from sharing and hearing another perspective,” says Tasha Eurich, a Denver-based organizational psychologist. “It’s healthy to ask what went wrong in a meeting. You have to engage other people in that process of learning.”
  3. Talk about failures in person. “It can be tempting to hide behind the safety blanket of Slack or email, but having face-to-face conversations around failure can be especially effective in building stronger relationships among colleagues. The ability to convey tone, body language and other non-linguistic reactions often plays a positive and humanizing role in these conversations, and all of that is lost in email, Mr. Staats said.”
  4. Venting is not discussion. Instead of focusing on how badly things went and how terrible you feel, try to frame the discussion in positive terms. What exactly went wrong? How could my performance have been improved? What was learned from the experience?
  5. Discussing failure can build friendships. Talking about our setbacks can humanize us. Of course this should be done in a safe, appropriate place and with the right people. But laying bare our wounds can make us more honest and relatable.
  6. Talking about failure makes us nimble and efficient. “According to Sara Canaday, executive coach and author of You — According to Them, the rise of start-up businesses has made it much more acceptable to openly celebrate intelligent failure. Suddenly, people are saying things like fail fast or fail forward. ‘Those are brand new words in the nomenclature of business,’ she said. By linking resiliency to innovation and growth, start-ups contribute to a general professional culture that frames failure as a positive learning experience. Likewise, many hiring managers are increasingly looking for resiliency in job candidates. That means it can be in your best interest to thoughtfully embrace the too-common interview question about a time you failed at work and how you overcame the challenge.”


What about your office? Does your firm culture discourage or encourage talking about failure?

Source: The New York Times

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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