Handling failure - follow the Lionesses

Submitted by Mark on 08th July 2019

HR, employee, workplace, success, motivation, business

'Failure’ is surely too harsh a word. Draw a straight line between failure and success. After their World Cup semi-final loss to the world’s number one team, the USA you’ll surely place England’s magnificent footballing lionesses right next to the ‘success’ end of the spectrum. Success in that it was England’s third successive championship semi-final. Success in that every player performed to the very peak of their ability. Success in that, through their extraordinary efforts, women’s football in the UK is now on a seemingly unstoppable surge of popularity.

So, who could possibly speak of failure? Their coach, Phil Neville - that’s who. But his words were uttered before the game, as a way of illustrating the laser-sharp focus of his dedicated pride of lionesses. He claimed that the only acceptable outcome from the tournament was to come home with the trophy. Anything less would be a failure.

No ‘luck’ or ‘pity’
It was all sound motivational stuff. But what about after the final whistle - with so many of the England players on their haunches in tearful despair. The word ‘failure’ didn’t pass Neville’s lips. Intriguingly, neither did the words, ‘luck’ or ‘pity’. His was an entirely no-nonsense, realistic, yet motivating reaction. 

“No need for tears”, he insisted, “we should just be proud”.

A squid in the face
So, in our businesses, how should we respond when, in spite of our best efforts, things don’t go quite to plan? What do you do when a member of staff ‘fails’ to hit target? You could follow the example of a claims centre in Manchester who adopt the endearing policy of dropping a dead squid onto the faces of under performers, while colleagues cheered and jeered in sadistic delight. Not an approach we would recommend.
Does humiliation in the workplace ever actually help us fix mistakes or improve employee performance? And if not, then why is it still such a common practice in companies of every shape and size – not just call centres, and admittedly, rarely with squids.
Unbelievably, humiliation in the workplace seems to be accepted far too often as a means of improving employee performance. The justification is often given as , “Their workmates enjoy it.” “It’s just banter - a bit of fun”. Really? No wonder, in some sectors, employee retention figures are so low.

Humiliation leads to shame – which employees will avoid at all costs
Psychologist Naomi Harvey, of Brighter Day Hypnotherapy, describes the sense of shame that arises from humiliation as “a dangerous emotion. It is one of the most uncomfortable emotions we deal with, and we will avoid it at all costs. Whilst humiliation may indeed drive a workforce to avoid being shamed, it is likely to increase stress and anxiety.

From ‘useless Frank’ to a $76million fortune
One noteworthy exception was back in 1873. A young man was working as a lowly store assistant. His boss perpetually humiliated him, naming him ‘useless Frank’. This young man quietly stuck at his task, taking in as much as he could about the world of retail. Finally leaving, five years later, he set up his own store - F.W. Woolworth. It turns out ‘useless’ Frank was quite useful after all.

Turning mistakes or perceived ‘failures’ into positives
Naomi Harvey recommends that “the best way to get true, long-term sustainable results, is to drive employees through their deep intrinsic values” she explains. “If you can crack what truly motivates them – whether that is success for their own pride, or the ability to provide for their family – then you will be able to move them far further than short-term humiliation ever can."

Phil Neville’s approach has been along these lines. In his short time with the England Lionesses, he’s built his reputation on getting to know his players as individuals. About finding out about their backgrounds and what truly makes them tick. It’s about treating people with respect - unique individuals with unique feelings.

Reflect, Identify, Analyse, Resolve
When things go wrong, the Phil Neville way is to carefully reflect; to identify and analyse what went wrong and why - to discuss the episode with the individuals concerned, to come up with a solution to avoid a repeat before finally (and this bit’s crucial), making sure that everyone concerned, buys into that solution.

Performance should be seen as something to be nurtured, with mistakes to be grasped positively as valuable lessons - not failures.

Here to help
As experts in Employee Engagement & Retention, we understand the value of a supportive, respectful response when things go wrong.
For straight-talking advice on all aspects of HR, call us - 01604 763494
Or email - info@GravitasHR.co.uk