What Went Wrong?: Your Answer Might Be Sabotaging Your Career Development

Oops! How You Explain Failures Might Be Sabotaging Your SuccessThe last time you ran into a roadblock or encountered a failure, how did you explain what went wrong?

Chances are you, your explanation fell into one of two categories:

1. Something unexpected occurred, it was unfortunate because it impacted delivery, but it’s out of my control. We’ll all have to look out for that next time.

2. It’s my fault. There were external factors at play that were unexpected, but I am ultimately responsible for ensuring delivery. Here’s what I am doing to resolve it.

Both explanations acknowledge a failure but the key difference lies is where they blame is placed for the miss and what is done after the miss occurs. And the way that you answer that question may explain why your boss doesn’t think you’re ready to take on more responsibility or is hesitant to give you more autonomy.

When we explain failures externally (option 1)…

  • We avoid the self-esteem hit. Failure is hard, unflattering, and makes us vulnerable. When the fault is ours, it becomes personal.
  • We (expect) to lessen or deflect the consequences. With fault comes the burden to bear the consequences.
  • We accept defeat too soon. When we scapegoat external factors, we determine that there is little/nothing we can reasonably do to fix or avoid the failure.

The funny thing is that by deflecting the blame and consequences, we communicate that we don’t have command or control over the process. So while we may be avoiding a consequences in the short term, we also indicate that we aren’t ready to take a next step.

When we own the failure (option 2)…

  • The failure is personal. Not a great feeling.
  • We acknowledge that there are things we should have done differently
  • Our behavior and choices matters. We recognize that our behavior and efforts have an impact on the outcome
  • We persevere and fight harder. We are more likely to troubleshoot and ask questions to avoid the failure
  • We learn and become more effective at our jobs.

When we own our failure and take the blow personally, we’re motivated to avoid that feeling in the future. We learn what didn’t work and we learn how to avoid it. We also become more skilled at troubleshooting, learn more about our functional areas, and ultimately become more effective. It communicates to those around us that although we may have missed this time, we have command and control over the process in general and are likely to handle it more effectively in the future. We’re also seen as more honest and authentic.

If you’re normal response to failure is to explain using option 1, the bad news is that this is a developmental roadblock.

You’re not taking ownership for one or more aspects of your job. It’s easier on the self-esteem, but it’ll prevent you from really learning and developing. This is going to require you to shift your focus and perspective, which is harder than just changing behavior.

The good news is that you know what you’re doing to sabotage your development, there are things you can do to change it.

Next time you encounter a roadblock – consider what the broader goal of the task you’re trying to achieve. Your default is to narrow your focus to that particular task, you’ll have to be active about it. Is there a different way you can approach the problem? Is there someone who can provide some advice or who might have a different perspective? Seek them out.

When you start owning failures, you learn from them and you start to take control and display command over the broader objective you’re trying to achieve. Remove the roadblock and take the next step.

And let’s be real, any post with the word sabotage in the title wouldn’t be complete without this classic:


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