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Learning from Failure - Don Greif, PhD

Learning from Failure

by Don Greif, Ph. D.

"The taste of defeat has a richness of experience all its own. To me, every day is a struggle to stay in touch with life's subtleties. No one grows without failing.” - Bill Bradley (former U.S. Senator and professional basketball player)

Learning from mistakes and failure—both our own and that of others—is vital to success. Most of us know this. But it’s harder to do than we might think.

Acknowledging our failures can make us feel bad, especially if—in the past—we were chastised or humiliated when we fell short. We may have become more concerned with saving face or covering up our mistakes. Our culture of success, too, discourages failure. Almost 50 years ago William Zinsser, teacher, author and NY Times columnist, wrote, "The right to fail is one of the few freedoms not granted by our Bill of Rights.” This is at least as true now as it was then.

It takes good leadership and good work environments—and often personal resilience and a thick skin—for us to accept failure and examine what went wrong and why—and to use this knowledge to improve. It’s vital to do this because otherwise we’re prone to making the same mistakes repeatedly. To state the obvious, you can’t learn from mistakes that aren’t recognized or reported.


Amy Edmondson, who teaches at the Harvard Business School and wrote “Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well,” looked at the relationship between good teamwork and error rates. She found that good teams—those that had good relationships, the ability and willingness to collaborate effectively, good leadership, high work satisfaction, and high performance—had high error rates. Initially, she was perplexed for it was the opposite of what she expected, but she discovered that in these workplaces people were far more willing to report mistakes—and to talk about them openly and honestly—than in more authoritarian, punitive environments. In the more open workplaces people said it was safe and easy to talk about mistakes; in other places people felt like they were put on trial when they reported errors, or their managers got angry and mistreated them. Edmondson recognized that when you insist on having an error-free performance, the main thing that happens is not that errors go away but that you stop hearing about them.


As much as we would like it to be otherwise, failure cannot be completely avoided since humans are fallible. Therefore, encouraging people to use their failures to get better at what they do is much more productive than encouraging people to sweep them under the rug.


People look to leaders as models. When leaders recognize their failures, learn from them, and do better—and encourage others to do the same—they provide a valuable model for all those who work with them.


I am mostly familiar with the restaurant, food service and hospitality industry from the standpoint of being a patron, or as the case may be, as a television viewer.  In “The Bear,” the TV show about a kitchen in a new restaurant (spoiler alert for those who haven’t watched it), Carmen (or “Carmi”), the head chef, manager and owner, struggled mightily with leading his team to be effective amidst enormous financial, staffing and interpersonal challenges. He was also troubled by flashbacks to his work at a former restaurant where he was verbally abused, and he was prone to mistreating his staff. One could see the effect of bad leadership on him; he fought against it yet it came out when he was under stress (personal communication, Dr. Elizabeth Stringer).


But Carmi learned from his managerial mistakes. Through his initially tumultuous relationship with Sydney, his sous-chef who held him accountable for his bad behavior, he began to encourage and support his staff, including Marcus (the baker) and Richie (the host). He recognized Sidney’s talent and made it clear he believed in her. Sidney, in turn, demonstrated her belief in her staff, most strikingly with Tina, who was surly and cynical until Sydney asked her to be her sous chef. Tina was powerfully moved and thrilled by this promotion; one got the sense that no one every showed this kind of belief in her before. Learning from their failures, Carmen and Sydney provided training and encouragement to create a skilled, dedicated and productive team in which individuals developed a newfound pride in themselves.


When it comes to failure, we might say that the only thing to fear is failing to learn from failure.

Dr. Don Greif is a psychologist and psychoanalyst who has a private psychotherapy, forensic, and sports psychology practice in New York City and Cape Cod. He has written and presented on a variety of topics: the value of sports, mastering athletic demons, good enough parenting and why men sexually assault women. He is currently writing a book titled "Quarreling with Culture and the Value of Discontent." Don received his B.A. from Yale and his Ph.D. from Yeshiva University.

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