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Leading Off
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The list is endless. Steve Jobs. Oprah. J. K. Rowling. Einstein. People of immense accomplishment who also failed at times along their way—sometimes repeatedly, and even spectacularly. We all fail, of course, and as much as we might like to dwell on our successes, it’s also healthy to take stock of where we’ve come up short. This week, explore the science and sensibilities of stumbling—professionally and personally—to better manage yourself, as well as those you lead. Fingers crossed!
figures of people
When you falter, treat yourself as you would a friend
Setbacks at work typically trigger one of two kinds of reaction, writes Serena Chen in Harvard Business Review. “Either we become defensive and blame others, or we berate ourselves.” Neither response is particularly helpful. The former might soothe failure’s sting, but at the expense of learning. The latter response, often observed in women, might seem warranted in the moment, but the gloomy self-assessment that lingers could retard personal development. Instead, try treating yourself as you would a friend in a similar situation, with grace and understanding. Research shows that self-compassion can help you be more objective, encourage a mindset oriented toward personal growth, and boost performance. Also, talk about it—to help put failure in perspective and develop the skill (it is a skill!) of coping with setbacks.
Women invest 60 percent more than men do at the same level when it comes to emotional support for their teams, according to McKinsey’s latest Women in the Workplace report. At a critical time, shaped by the pandemic and a racial reckoning, women are leading the way in prioritizing employee well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Yet at the institutional level, this mission-critical work is often overlooked and undervalued, leading some women to question their worth. Pandemic stresses, stern meritocratic cultures, and old-fashioned office politics can erode self-confidence even more, even for the high achievers, leading to the “imposter syndrome”—and a cycle of perceived failure. But Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey argue in “Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome” that the focus on individual women may overlook the more pressing need for leaders to create inclusive organizational cultures—workplaces that reduce the experiences that culminate in imposter syndrome, especially among employees from marginalized communities. Toxic workplaces can have profound effects on workers long after they leave. For leaders, instilling a culture of psychological safety can help their employees thrive.
“In work and in life, there are two kinds of failure: actions and inactions. Ultimately, what we regret is not failure, but the failure to act.”
So says Adam Grant, organizational psychology guru and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He admits to being “crushed” when, while interviewing for his first teaching job after graduate school, he was told that he wasn’t capable of teaching MBA students. Entrepreneurs who champion creativity and drive change in the world, he says, see failure not as a sign that their ideas are doomed but as a necessary step toward success. Today his résumé is 32 pages long, but he advocates creating a “failure résumé” detailing setbacks as a way of maintaining perspective and building resilience to adversity.
two people talking
The possibility of failure accompanies us in every business interaction, even when we may be oblivious to it. In this series of video vignettes, My Rookie Moment, McKinsey partners recount early formative events in their careers. For one of them, it’s nerves being set on edge by an unexpected sit-down in the CEO’s office. For another, it’s a moment of self-realization that came from a young consultant’s first experience as the manager of an older colleague. In their reflections on these instructive instances—and the sometimes unexpected outcomes—you may find familiar lessons, fresh guidance, and perhaps the confidence to handle a future curveball, or even to improve your odds of success when your own “moment” arrives.
It’s all in the preparation
frosted leaves
Of course, we can never be fully fail-safe, but there are some things you can do in advance to prepare for, and perhaps prevent, a big flop. For one thing, it’s possible when you’re facing that big presentation or project review to conduct a premortem that anticipates your planned outcomes going awry. For years, social scientists have been chipping away at the problem of coping with failure, and they have produced some key insights regarding attitudes toward learning that play an important role from a young age. In a Wall Street Journal article from 2012, learning scholar Ken Bain draws the distinction between students who consider their intelligence fixed and those who believe that they can grow intelligence their entire lives; the latter group develops motivation and resilience to overcome setbacks and solve problems that at first might seem insurmountable. Such intentional learning is a skill that can be acquired, just like the personal grit that comes from understanding that failing is a natural part of growth.
Lead well.
— Edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in McKinsey’s New Jersey office
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