Executive Coaching: How do you handle failure?

Yesterday in a coaching session, one of my clients (we will call him John) told me about a situation at work where he got some feedback from a peer.  He was explaining how mad he was.  He said, “Who does this guy think he is?  What is his problem?  I can’t believe he has the nerve to criticize me and my team!”  I asked him how he felt.  He said, “Mad!  I want to rip his head off!  I have rage boiling in my blood.”  In the session, I was on the edge of my seat and curious.  I asked, “What did he say?”  Get this.  John said with a huff, “He told me that my team needs to improve the marketing requirements document.”  I was stunned.  John was having THAT kind of reaction, for THAT kind of comment.  What was going on?
In another case, “Judy” got a bad performance review.  Bottom line is that the company did not meet their numbers and she was one of three executives in charge of results.  The Board did not want to pay out bonuses due to company performance.  When she got the feedback, she was so stressed out that she checked herself into the hospital because she thought she was having a heart attack!  I’m serious.  This happened a month ago.  She was beside herself and had to take a week off of work.
John and Judy are not alone.  One of the most common things that I deal with in my coaching work is how people respond to negative criticism or failure.  For many people, when they get a wiff of criticsm, they go all “funny.”  They get mad, their heart beat goes up, or they get insecure, paralyzed, or super controlling for fear of messing up again.  These reactions are often more problematic than the original event.  They can lead to stress, sleepless nights, and they can destroy workplace relationships.   And, of course, they sure don’t make work fun.
So, what the heck is going on?  I was interested to read a recent article in Harvard Business Review that said that 70% of the population has a dysfunctional reaction to blame, failure, or criticism.  This must explain why I am so busy!  Basically, many people go into flight or fight mode when they think their reputation, or competence is being threatened, or they feel like people don’t like them.  When this happens, they feel an emotional “trigger” which elicits their subconscious mind and takes them from being a wise, mature adult, to being a primitive beast that is trying to protect themselves against threat.  In never ceases to amaze me the things that run through people’s head in these situations.  “I can’t believe my boss!  What a jerk.”  “I feel so terrible.  I should have done better.”  Or, “I can’t stand working with such incompetent people!”  I genuinely have to talk people off the ledge when this happens and help them get back into touch with that wise part of themselves that has some perspective on the situation.
In this article by Harvard Business Review, they say that there are three categories of reactions to failure.
1) Some people are extra punitive, meaning they unfairly blame others.
2) Others are impunitive, meaning they deny that failure has occurred or deny their own role in it.
3) And some are intropunitive, often judging themselves too harshly and imagining failure where none exists.
This got me thinking.  Which category do I fall into?  What about my clients?  In my practice, I find that most people fall into the extra punitive category (they blame others) or the intropunitive category (they judge themselves to harshly).  What is interesting is that it seems to me like the most painful response is when people judge themselves too harshly.  One of my clients is an absolutely wonderful woman, but she is so hard on herself that it hurts me.  When things go wrong, she takes the weight of the world on her shoulders and she berates herself for days for not handling things well enough.   She loses sleep, feels bad, and is generally miserable.  This definitely seems like the most painful response.
For those who are “blamey” in their approach, they don’t seem to feel as much emotional pain, but they destroy relationships.  These are the clients who others whisper about at the water cooler, saying things like: “That guy is such a power tripper.”  “Or, my boss is coming back from vacation today and I am dreading it.  Our numbers are bad and he is always scolding us like kids.”  These leaders often get some pointed feedback on their 360 reviews, or they contribute to negative politicking.
So, which category do you fall into?
- When you get a wiff of criticism, or experience failure, do you blame others?
- Do you tend to blame yourself and be extra hard on yourself?
- Or, do you just shove the failure under the rug and pretend it never happened?
Knowing this about yourself can be very powerful.  With this self-awareness, you can more easily recognize when you are on the ledge, and armed with this knowledge, you ask yourself some different questions to assess the situation and to gain some perspective.  With this new perspective, you can try out new strategies for learning from the failure rather than merely just coping with it.  Here are some questions to round out your view:
- Why did the failure happen?
- Where am I responsible for this failure?
- How did others contribute?
- What was the context surrounding the failure?
- Is my reaction productive?  Is it going to help me move forward?  Build positive relationships?
- What can I learn from this?
- What can I do differently next time?
On an aside, I was just talking a course on adult development across the lifespan.  One of the key points was that adults evolve social emotionally through failure!  When people fail, or experience some kind of loss, they either grow, or their ego gets in the way and has them stagnate.  With this perspective in mind, learning to deal with failure better is a worthy goal.  It will help you evolve and grow as a human being, and as a leader, and friend.
Danter, Ben and Hogan, Robert (April 2011).  Can You Handle Blame.  Harvard Business Review.