A comprehensive guide for handling failure at work

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 4 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Over the course of any career, occasional failures are almost inevitable. Despite this, failures can often be opportunities for learning and positivity. If you've experienced a failure at work, understanding how to handle it can help you to overcome the situation and move on. In this article, we explain the importance of handling failure at work and how to overcome it.

The importance of handling failure at work

Handling failure at work is an important process due to failure's inevitability and the benefits of effectively overcoming it. Encountering failure can cause certain negative reactions, such as anxiety, feeling helpless, self-criticism and even cynicism. Reactions like these can obstruct your ability to overcome failure, deal with its repercussions and move on. Like anything else which is almost inevitable, preparation is a key part of minimising its negative effects. Moreover, being prepared to handle it can help you to turn the experience into a learning opportunity, which can itself contribute to future success or the aversion of other failures.

How to handle failure at work

Here's a list of steps to follow if you encounter failure at work:

1. Acknowledge how you feel

Some of the negative feelings that accompany failure are a very natural reaction. It's therefore better to acknowledge and understand these feelings rather than attempt to reject them or let them overwhelm you entirely. Anxiety, embarrassment, frustration and self-deprecation are among the common reactions that you might experience. Although these are negative in nature, it's healthy to acknowledge them and their role in improving you. This is because the negativity of these emotions can incentivise you to take steps to avoid a repeat experience. By adopting this approach, you can turn these negative emotions into incentives for self-improvement.

You can acknowledge these emotions on your own or talk to someone close to you. This could be a close colleague at work, a friend or family member. Speaking to someone who cares about you is also an opportunity to get someone else's opinion, as they may be able to counter some of your more negative thoughts and give you a fresh perspective.

2. Recall past failures

If this isn't the first time you've encountered failure, try to remember some failures from the past. This can be a good way of seeing the current situation in context. Try to remember these past situations, how you handled them, your personal reaction and the outcome. Doing so can help to remind you that failure is a routine part of life and that its consequences are often less than your initial fears. It's also a reminder that failures pass, which is probably going to be the case with the current situation too.

If you cannot recall some past failures of your own which can help, a good alternative is to research the failures of famous and successful individuals. Almost all of them made mistakes which probably felt significant at the time, yet went on to become successful and famous. You can find a lot of these stories online and they're a good reminder that even the best and most successful people fail and make mistakes.

Related: 51 quotes by famous authors to inspire perseverance

3. Analyse the situation

Doing something proactive is a good first step to overcoming failure. This allows you to distract yourself from any negative emotions while also engaging in a productive activity. The feeling of purpose and achievement that accompanies productive work can start to help you feel more positive. To do this, carefully analyse the results of the failure, who was responsible for its various aspects, what the root causes were and its precipitative causes. Try to determine if this failure was actually avoidable. If it was avoidable, see if you can identify the steps which would've been necessary to avoid it.

Related: Analytical skills: Definitions and examples

4. Take responsibility

Another natural reaction to experiencing failure is to look for others to blame. People may do this because they don't want to experience the negative emotions associated with acknowledging a personal failure. This approach often only works in the short term, as you'd eventually realise that you had some role in the failure. By acknowledging your role in the failure, you can start to deal with it sooner. Use your analysis of the situation to identify your role in it and how you could've done better.

Even if you weren't responsible for the precipitative cause, perhaps you could've been part of its root cause. It's quite rare for one person to be entirely responsible for a failure at work, but acknowledging your role in the failure can help you to identify how you could've done better. In a workplace setting where the failure might've affected others, acknowledgement also means that you admit to others what you did. This is important for ensuring that nobody receives undeserved blame.

5. Rectify the consequences

Another proactive step is to take action to address the consequences of the failure. A good place to start is where the outcome of the failure has negatively affected others. This demonstrates that you take your responsibility seriously and are committed to amending the situation. For example, the failure might've been ordering the wrong items for delivery to customers. In this case, the primary individuals whom the situation affected are the customers. A good first step would be to call these customers and apologise for the error and assure them that they're going to receive the right items.

You could also offer to assist customers with returning the incorrect items. A good next step would be to speak with the sales team and acknowledge your error and how it might've affected them. Finally, double-checking the replacement items before shipping them ensures that there's no repeat of the error.

6. Address the causes

Most failures have both a root cause and a precipitative cause. The root cause is the underlying or pre-existing circumstances which enabled the failure to occur. The precipitative cause is the action which directly caused the failure or which revealed the underlying problem. In the example of incorrect order shipments, the precipitative cause might've been that you didn't check to make sure which items you were sending. The root cause could have been that you weren't sleeping sufficiently and this affected your ability to focus.

You can often address both of these to ensure that the chances of a repeat scenario are minimal. Moreover, addressing the root cause is often more impactful than the precipitative cause. For the wrong shipment example, addressing the precipitative cause would be implementing a new system for double checking orders. Addressing the root cause would be changing your routine at home to ensure that you always get enough sleep and can focus at work.

7. Look for learning opportunities

Almost every failure has a learning opportunity within it. These learning opportunities present you with the chance to find positivity in a negative situation and improve yourself, thereby becoming more capable in future. You can base this on questions that you ask yourself and your initial analysis. Some useful questions include those below.

  • What was the precipitative cause of the failure?

  • What was the root cause?

  • Were either of the causes avoidable?

  • If they were avoidable, then how?

  • Were you entirely to blame or only partially?

  • What information would've prevented the failure?

  • Are there any preventative measures which could've averted the failure?

  • How can you implement preventative measures in future?

  • What skills would help avoid or address future failures?

Related: Why is learning by experience important for your career?

8. Move forward

The last step for handling failure is moving on. Once you've rectified the situation, addressed its causes and derived lessons from the situation, you've already done all you can. Try to focus on the positive actions you took and how this helped you to grow as a person and a professional.

Depending on the failure itself, it can also be healthy to recall it later with friends or colleagues and laugh about it. It's also important to remind yourself that another failure is probably going to happen at some point and that you're better prepared to handle it now than you were before.

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