Workplace Wellbeing: Failure as a stepping stone to success 

Our instinct is to hide our mistakes but being open about them opens the door to new opportunities and helps to build trust with colleagues 
Workplace Wellbeing: Failure as a stepping stone to success 

Basant Shenouda, originally from Eygpt who has been working in Dublin for the past three years. . Photograph Moya Nolan

Basant Shenouda knows how much it hurts to fail. The 26-year-old Egyptian lives in Dublin, where she works for LinkedIn, but after university she failed to get a job.

“I wanted to work in tech and landed interviews with the likes of Google and Facebook, but consistently got rejected,” says the marketing graduate.

Her peers had no problem finding work. “Comparing myself to them affected my confidence,” she says.

However, she refused to be deterred. She changed tack. “I analysed my job-search process and realised I needed to get more experience through internships, networking, and further certifications,” she says. “I also started posting career content online, writing candidly about the job hunt, and continued to do so all the way into my first job, at LinkedIn.”

As well as bringing her to the attention of prospective employers, Shenouda’s posts proved popular with other job seekers. She has more than 116,000 followers online and runs a part-time business coaching international students on visa sponsorships and jobs.

“I’m proud that I took a difficult situation and turned it into something life-changing,” she says. “People saw themselves in my story and found comfort in the community that I have created around the taboo topic of failure.”

Dr Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and author of Right King of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, believes we need to acknowledge our failures.

“Too many of us pretend to be perfect people who never experience any kind of failure,” she says. “We try to hide our failures, both from ourselves and from others. That’s a pity, as it makes it difficult for us, and for those around us, to learn lessons from why we failed.”

There are reasons why we behave like this. “Failure could have been fatal for us in prehistoric times, resulting in us being rejected from the tribe,” says Edmondson. “That’s why covering it up has become so instinctive to us. This innate fear is exacerbated by our socialisation and schooling, where to fail is seen as taboo.”

Growth is risky

Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh, professor of coaching and positive psychology at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, agrees that the perception of failure is negative.

“It’s seen as something that should be avoided at all costs,” Van Nieuwerburgh says. “It attracts ridicule and humiliation and is regarded as a legitimate cause for shame.”

But viewing failure in this way is a mistake. “Take away the shame, disappointment, and stigma associated with failure and what’s left is a word that means the opposite of success or not achieving a goal,” he says.

“If we see it that way, we can turn painful experiences into opportunities for learning, growth, and development.”

Yet many people do the opposite. The shame they feel when they fail can prevent them from trying again. This is also a mistake, says Edmondson. “Anything in life that brings growth and adventure also brings with it the risk of failure,” she says. “A life that has had no failure is one where people haven’t stretched themselves or tried new things.”

Rather than allowing the fear of failure to limit us, Edmondson suggests seeing it as scientists do. “In a lab, each ‘intelligent’ failure brings valuable, useful knowledge that helps us to step into new territory,” she says.

“Like scientists, we can train ourselves to appreciate what failure is teaching us.”

This training starts with distinguishing between what Edmondson calls ‘intelligent failures’ and the kinds of failures we should all avoid. “If there’s a recipe for making a cake and you don’t follow it and your cake doesn’t come out well as a result, that’s a failure you should have known to avoid,” she says.

It’s different if you’re pursuing a goal in new territory. “This is when you try things because you have good reason to think they will work,” says Edmondson. “The outcome may be uncertain, but the risk is worth taking.”

It’s vital to mitigate the risks in this situation. “Don’t make a bigger bet than you can afford,” she says. “For example, don’t invest all your money.”

By taking precautions, potential failures won’t impact you too severely, but move you closer to your end goal. “Even if you fail, you’ll learn something that will help you to advance,” says Edmondson.

Van Nieuwerburgh has other tips to reframe failure. “Instead of telling ourselves that we failed, acknowledging that we have experienced a setback on a journey allows us to broaden our perspective and to see our non-achievement as part of a longer narrative,” he says.

“Being honest about the level of challenge we face and assessing our progress also allows us to engage with our failures in a way that is helpful for growth.”

Edmondson advises employers to tell staff that failure is unavoidable in an innovative workplace. “People need to be told that we all operate in a complex and uncertain world, where it’s nonsensical to imagine that everything will always go well,” she says.

“There are trips and stumbles for us all along the way to achieving our goals and ambitions. By acknowledging them, we can learn from them and get to where we want to be far more quickly.”

Van Nieuwerburgh recommends that employers encourage employees to ask for help. “Goals can sometimes be too great for us to succeed on our own,” he says. “Admitting this and asking for help is preferable to continuing to struggle alone.”

Confronting our failures allows us to learn important lessons that can lead to more substantial success in the long term. It can also improve our relationship with our work colleagues.

“It’s hard to relate to someone who appears to be perfect and never makes mistakes,” says Edmondson. “Sharing a failure with someone can be a deeply bonding experience. The honesty and vulnerability it involves creates an authentic connection.”

Shenouda’s story proves this is true. Opening up about her failures won her thousands of online followers, a nomination for the UK’s Digital Women Awards 2023, and invitations to speak to organisations such as the European Commission and the Ireland Washington Project.

She continues to be open about her failures and to learn valuable lessons from them. “In 2022, I was rejected from a master’s programme,” she says. “I was disappointed, but I put what I learned from that rejection into an application to Harvard University, and now I’m set to graduate from there next year.”

Her core message is that none of us should fear failure. “We can all benefit by seeing the obstacles we come up against in life as stepping stones to success, not as stones that block our way,” she says.

“Failure brings the opportunity to create solutions and I, for one, wouldn’t be where I am in life without having failed a lot.”

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