When I was a young sales manager, one of the most challenging parts of my job was having 1-on-1 meeting with my sales reps to assess their performance. It was easy to do when they were rockin’; I’d give them a few pointers and some words of motivation and send them back out. But when they weren’t doing well it was another story. It can be really hard to fail. It can be even harder to watch someone fail. It’s the worst when you have to watch people fail… and you’re their boss and the one who is supposed to address that failure.
I think this is why so many competent individuals are such struggle as managers and leaders in the long run. It’s easy to work with a direct report when everything is going well, but what if things aren’t going great? How are you supposed to address it? How you answer that questions is important because when leaders don’t know how to approach their people’s shortcomings, they often go to one of two extremes. They either become an absentee manager and completely ignore the problem; or they become an overbearing micro-manager that is viewed as a taskmaster and doesn’t create improvement either.
Walking your people through failure is one of the most important jobs you have when you are in charge. Failure is going to happen; and in this context it can be anything that doesn’t go according to plan – it can be as little as a missed deadline on a report or as big as falling short of a sales quota or losing a big account. But understand, when you are working through others, when you have a team, they aren’t always going to be successful.
However, you can reap positive results from the struggles of the people you work with. When failure is used as a teaching tool to create better activities and results in the future, it can incredibly valuable. Here’s how you take the negative and create a positive out of it:
1. Handle your emotional baggage first. It can be hard to lead your people through their challenges when you are irritated, frustrated, or mad. Their failure might have caused you more work or made it harder to get your quarterly bonus – but taking it out on them won’t lead to better results in the future. You have to manage yourself first. Find a way to process your emotions before you get into a meeting – walk around the block, go to the gym, whatever works for you.
2. Acknowledge reality. Put all the cards out on the table and look at what happened. The saying goes that failure is a thing, not a person…well, be truthful about the thing. Did they not hit a sales quota? Did they handle a customer poorly? Did they fail to follow through on a project? Whatever it is, don’t be vague or confusing, make sure that it’s clear where they fell short. If it’s a numerical goal, it’s easy; but if it’s not quantifiable, for example, a communication issue with a client or coworker, take the time to make sure they fully understand where they went off track.
3. Identify the causes. This is the hardest, and most overlooked, piece of the process. Ask why the failure happened; because until you honestly assess the causes, you’ll never find solutions. This is why you have to walk into the process with a clear head, you want to help the individual figure out the root causes of their failing, and that won’t happen if you are on the offensive. There are many reasons why we don’t achieve our goals – insufficient skill or experience, unclear priorities, time-management issues, lack of motivation – your job is to work with the individual to figure out what got in the way.
4. Find the next step. Knowing the cause is important because the opportunity that lies in failure is in finding a different action to take in the future. There’s the oft-quoted line: “Insanity is doing this same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So the question for you to ask is: What is the different activity that will lead to different results? When you can find an answer to that question, it moves the failure from a problem to an important step in the growth process.
5. Get buy-in. The most frustrating part of managing other people is that you can’t actually change for them. In the end, once you’ve identified where things went off track, all you can do is ask if they are willing to invest in their own success. You can look at ways that you can provide support – training, accountability, resources; but nothing will replace their willingness to step up to the plate and keep on swinging. Ask them if they are willing to grow.
And that’s the crux of successfully working through other people. You can call it what you want – leadership, mentorship, coaching, whatever. But in the end, your job is to get the person to engage in their area of failure, and make another attempt armed with the experience and knowledge they’ve earned They might be successful, they might be unsuccessful, but you have to get them to try, to honestly try, again.
And that’s how you help people fail successfully.