The dark side of resilience: why we need to stop obsessing about failure so much

Growth Mindset. Grit. Bounce back. Bounce Forward. Pivot. Fail fast. Celebrate failure. Move fast and break things. Fuck Up Nights. Failure Resumes. Failure awards.

We live in an era of the happy screw up. And it’s a good thing.

All of these buzzwords reflect a culture that is at last embracing a healthy relationship with failure. One which leverages its creative power and abolishes the shame we so instinctively attach to mistakes. It’s something I think about a lot as an improviser. After-all, a key tenet of improvisation is treating mistakes as gifts. Something goes wrong and we ask ourselves on stage, ‘Where’s the offer here?‘ Or, ‘What can I do with this?

But I fear we may be losing the collective plot. Let me tell you why.

I was lucky enough this week to be a participant in a fascinating webinar with Team GB sports psychologist Dr Chris Shambrook. Shambrook has worked with the British Olympic rowing teams since 1997. On this webinar he shared with us the four principles that enable elite performance. And he didn’t mention the word failure once.

A key part of elite performance is not bouncing back from failures (or even learning from them), it is the opposite. It is about regularly reviewing your WHAT and your HOW after victories so that you can decode your ‘recipe for success.’

How often do we pause after things have gone well to ask ourselves, first: what caused this success? And second, what does that say about our strengths?

Having a learning culture, says Shambrook, means constantly updating your WHAT and HOW. If you don’t have a deliberate process of noticing successes, you undermine that culture. But so often we only talk about learning from failures. If we get the outcome we want, we don’t learn as much. We simply feel relieved and move on. Hoping thing will work next time too.

I heard another story this week about a team that have done this amazingly well.

It was from the ‘Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat’ podcast, specifically an episode with Professor Damien Hughes. Hughes is an organisational psychologist and author of The Barcelona Way, the story of how Barcelona turned their team from European also rans into the powerhouse of world football. What made the difference for Barcelona, was that they focussed on a ‘commitment model’ of culture. They identified three key ‘Barcelona’ behaviours and then recruited and managed relentlessly to make sure they were manifested. And the effect was transformational.

What was interesting to me was how Barcelona identified these 3 behaviours.

According to Hughes, Barcelona asked themselves one very simple question: ‘When we are at our very best, what are the trademark behaviours we are exhibiting?’ They came up with three: humility, hard work (investing in your talent), and thirdly ‘you put the team first.’

Hughes now asks this question to every individual, and every team he works with in both the sports and business world. It builds their confidence, gives them a feeling of control and highlights their differentiating skills.

What are the answers for you or your team?

It’s an important question to mull over. Because it is in our victories that we find the recipe for our next success. Not in our failures. But if that’s the case, why don’t we talk about them more?

Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classesshows and corporate training.

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