Reframing How You View Failure on the Job


By Shelly Cone, Public Information Specialist, County of San Luis Obispo

I had been on the job for maybe three weeks when I was asked to lead a joint agency press conference. I had organized dozens of press conferences in the past, so it should’ve been my first win at the new agency. Instead, it was my first bellyflop.

I rehearsed. I had notes listing the names of the individuals I would be introducing. I was prepared. I welcomed everyone and led them in the flag salute. Then, as I introduced the speakers that were to follow, a gust of wind wound across the podium blowing up dust and sending my notes scattering. With news cameras rolling and my new boss and elected officials watching I tried to recover, but I was so new and nervous that I couldn’t remember everyone’s names.

I was forced to explain that I was new, and that I needed a second to organize my notes because I didn’t know everyone’s names. I hurriedly did that, passed the mic over and did my best to stay composed through the rest of the press conference. Inside I was mortified.

As communicators, we aren’t supposed to fail. Our job is to make sure things run smoothly, that our superiors look good, and that the information we relay is accurate. There is no room for mistakes.

We are also human and as much as we dislike it, mistakes happen. Fortunately, it’s not the failure that adversely affects us, it’s the way we respond. And that is something within our control.

Remind yourself of your successes

One of the first things that often occurs immediately after a perceived failure is that we overthink and watch the replay on repeat. The result is that we continue to emotionally relive the experience and feel that gut punch over and over again. While evaluating the circumstances is good, it’s only helpful if you view it in the right perspective.

Instead of beating yourself down over what happened, remind yourself of your successes. If you have to, stop and review the achievements you’ve had in the past. The Full Focus article, “How to Bounce Back from Failure,” recommends keeping a written record of your wins. Your mistake can overshadow your previous successes in your mind. Reviewing a list of achievements serves as a reminder of the things you do well.

Remember, you are a badass communications expert! You were hired because management recognized your skills—and they weren’t wrong.

Put it into perspective

Here is where all that evaluation becomes helpful. Once you are at peace with yourself look at what went wrong. In “14 Ways to Pick Yourself Up After a Major Failure,” Forbes suggests that you acknowledge that it was not you but an action that did not work out. Instead of blaming yourself, identify actions you can take to correct the situation right now or prevent it from happening in the future. Indeed, the article suggests viewing the mistake as a part of the learning process. If you keep an open mind, you’ll see that with every failure there’s an opportunity to either turn it around or identify process improvements—which can turn a mistake into a win!

Create a path so that you don’t repeat your mistakes

Finally, take the time to outline how you plan to avoid that mistake in the future. According to the Muse article, “Your Foolproof Guide to Moving on After You’ve Messed Up at Work,” you should evaluate your process to identify where the breakdown occurred. Were you working too fast to take in the details? Multi-tasking? Address those actions and, if appropriate, tell your boss how you will prevent those things in the future. In my case, (after sincerely apologizing to the individual whose name I forgot), I addressed the faux pas with my boss acknowledging the mistake and explaining what steps I would take to prevent it from happening again. At the next outdoor press conference, I made sure I memorized the speakers’ names along with their photos. I also secured my notes to a wooden clipboard so they wouldn’t blow away.

We’re communicators. We know how to shape a message to ensure the audience views the information with the appropriate perspective. So, change the way you view failure. It’s not fun, that’s for sure, but it’s a learning process. When we learn, we grow. With growth sometimes comes growing pains, but what we grow into is something beautiful.

Return to Communicator