Learning From Failure

Most Pryor Learning blog articles are pretty positive – we want to emphasize and build on your strengths, and approach your continuous learning and development through an encouraging lens. Appreciating and leveraging the positive options ahead creates a spirit of optimism and motivation.

And yet, sometimes, we all fail at work. It hurts, it is disappointing and it happens. Here, we focus on acknowledging and learning from failure.

Defining Failure

First, let’s review the types of failure that can occur – understanding sources of failure at work help us avoid it or manage it when it happens:

  • You did not meet an agreed-upon metric or numerical target (customer, sales, production).
  • You received feedback that you are not meeting performance expectations.
  • An unanticipated risk turned into a problem that hurts the organization.
  • You received feedback that you lost the support or confidence of your peers or supervisor.
  • A very visible or public crisis occurred in an area you are responsible for.
  • A process has broken down that is stopping the delivery of key products or services.
  • Your team is experiencing high turnover, or cannot bring new people on – good people are leaving and you can’t replace them.
  • A series of small problems or errors have reached a tipping point that is compromising a key goal or mission achievement.
  • You worked hard to harness a new opportunity (customer, job, service or product line) and did not succeed.
  • You lost your job or position, or were part of a layoff (while a layoff was not your fault, it still can feel like a failure).

This is just a list of possible signals of failure – you may recognize them from your own past, or be able to look to the horizon to see what may lie ahead!

Assessing What Happened and Why

Once you see and admit that a failure has occurred – perhaps using the list above to define it, take some time to analyze what happened.

  • Did you or could you have anticipated it? Recognizing what you saw and did not act on, or what you chose to ignore, can help you anticipate future risk better. And, if you did anticipate it, but could not prevent or change it, it is worth reviewing the conditions that led to that.
  • Did the failure happen over the short-term or the long-term? Sometimes, rapid shifts can lead to unexpected failure, even if the underlying conditions are sound. Sometimes, however, there was a root cause problem that was looming in the background that was either unseen or un-addressed. This type of critical thinking exercise may open your eyes to other possible concerns on the horizon.
  • Whose failure is it? How much of the failure could you have controlled? Some people take on accountability for events out of their control – feeling like they could have done more, even if they didn’t really have the power to prevent failure. Others are more likely to point elsewhere and avoid taking responsibility.  Ask yourself honestly and objectively what was and was not in your control, and what that means for next time.
  • What did you learn? What could have done differently? Concretely writing down actions you could have taken but didn’t, or actions you could have done differently, can help you process. This can eventually turn into lessons learned for the future – but at this stage, you want to focus on past and present to fully analyze what happened before jumping ahead.


As part of this exercise, take the time to think through how you really feel – and if you feel differently after asking the questions above. In doing this, you may even recall a time when you had a “gut feel” that something was awry, but didn’t acknowledge or act on it. Or maybe you raised a flag but did not push it hard enough when your supervisor didn’t pick up on it. Processing your emotions during and after a difficult event is as important as analyzing the failure – because it will get you in a better frame of mind for the future, and may help you trust your own judgement better.

Several Pryor resources are available to help you though this learning process:

  • Good strategic planning approaches help you both reflect and look ahead. Our Strategic Thinking and Planning seminar helps you deepen your decision-making and problem-solving skills.
  • Developing Emotional Intelligence is available in both in-person and online formats – and can help you build the self-awareness and resilience to address failure more effectively.
  • You can also search Pryor’s Emotional Intelligence library for self-guided options!

Reframing: Finding and Selling the Positive

It is also useful to ask whether and how you could reframe the failure – for yourself or others. We aren’t talking about ignoring a bad event or pretending it away – but it is useful to place the failure in perspective, based on what you learned or achieved despite it. Failure is often not an “all or nothing” state.

A colleague once shared that she struggles with the interview question, “Name a time you failed – what happened, and what did you do and learn from it?” It’s a common interview question, so it’s a good one to be ready for! She quickly clarified that she doesn’t want to appear arrogant or naïve by suggesting she has had no failures, but over time, she has learned a few approaches to avoid it or reframe it when it occurs. Here are her practices that make that possible:

  • Over the years, based on past experience, through careful project planning and reflection, she has gotten good at recognizing risks and problems and mitigating them as she goes along. For example, it is always easier to have a difficult conversation or change a project approach before emotions are high when a problem occurs. She has learned to raise concerns early without fear of emotional discomfort.
  • She plans for early wins in any project, and tracks and communicates small successes as they occur. She acknowledges that people rarely get credit for risks that are actually avoided, so she finds ways to communicate risk mitigation steps as their own successes – by showing how today’s decisions avoid future problems. This builds confidence and support in the team’s work and ability to look ahead, and provides a positive buffer for when negative feedback is needed, or something does go wrong.
  • For a big or risky project, she implements early outreach and process steps, to both gain input and demonstrate her work to gain that input and buy-in from impacted internal and external stakeholders. As with communicating early wins, this indirectly cushions or blunts negative impacts on her team if something goes wrong – because many people were involved in the early stages.
  • She always assumes failure can and likely will occur, so she always has a calculated back-up plan or alternative benefit or win to fall back on. When a risk is realized or a failure starts to look real, she immediately activates her Plan B and associated communication plan. She calls this “moving the goalpost and declaring victory.” This is a mix of operations planning and communications planning – she both has simpler, alternative approaches planned and know how to talk about those actions as benefits. Her planning always also considers back-up plans – she dreams and plans big, but always has a quickly implementable back-up plan each step of the way.

All of these actions involve the following key elements: constantly scanning the environment, looking ahead at what could go wrong and taking small and regular steps to mitigate risks and communicate about success. This builds resiliency and credit for her and her team – so when something fails, it is a softer landing. Many of these principles are also core to an “agile” approach to product or technology development or project management. Change management done constantly and well can help mitigate future failure.

Pryor Learning’s resources to help you build these skills:

  • Our Creative Leadership seminar provides techniques to motivate and re-energize your team to develop a creative and collaborative environment.
  • The Leading Change in the Workplace seminar helps you implement change management techniques with your own team.
  • The Manager’s Guide to Confident Communication seminar can help you communicate more effectively about successes and failure both internally and externally.
  • Search Pryor’s library for leadership and communication for more!

Looking Ahead

When a failure occurs, it is important to both address the technical or operational problem, and to show you care and have a plan for the future. This requires taking clear and visible initiative – don’t just quietly go into your office until you make it all better! Talk about the actions you are taking and overtly highlight and demonstrate improvements. Learn about ways to build resiliency in yourself and others – don’t ignore the past or pretend it doesn’t matter, but balance realism about what occurred with a positive mindset. Talk about small successes, and share what learning has occurred.