Why People Fail – Canadian Government Executive

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Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
January 10, 2013

Why People Fail

Why People Fail
Siimon Reynolds
Jossey-Bass, 236 pages, $29.95

The Wisdom of Failure
Laurence Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey
Jossey-Bass, 282 pages, $33.95

We seek success in our daily endeavours. But it’s often through failure that we can learn best.

“Success is often just a moment – a goal fulfilled, soon to be replaced with new goals. But failure is the ambitious person’s constant companion, often dogging us for months, years, or even decades before we finally reach our aim. We need to understand and conquer failure if we are ever to master success,” Australian leadership coach Siimon Reynolds writes in Why People Fail.

But if we can learn from our own failures, it’s also possible that we might learn from the failures of others, and through that, avoid making the same mistakes ourselves. “Great leaders embrace the learning they get from mistakes (both their own and others’),” Bradley University professor of management Laurence Weinzimmer and business development specialist Jim McConoughey write in The Wisdom of Failure.

Indeed, it’s probably crucial that we learn from the mistakes of others, since as Weinzimmer and McConoughey note, there is a “failure paradox” that haunts our organizations. While failure is hailed as a great teacher and thus an organizational good, the reality is that if you fail you are likely to suffer for that failure rather than be congratulated. That’s true in business, where the failure may reduce the bottom line, but even more true in government where the political Opposition may feast for days if not months on a failure, roasting your political bosses.

So let’s look at the common sources of failure, thanks to those two books, both published this year with a similar theme but quite different schemas. Together, they offer us 25 failures to watch out for, too many to assimilate in one reading, but some may leap out at you as worth pondering and you may want to return to read this summary again in the future or delve into the books for greater understanding.

Reynolds offers 16 failures:
•    Unclear purpose: The average person has no clear purpose, which leads to mediocrity. To succeed, you need to be clear about your life purpose, job purpose, and, on a more sustained basis, your weekly purpose, delineating your one or two most important tasks for the next seven days.
•    Destructive thinking: If you constantly seize upon the negative, you’ll smother your new ideas and those of people around you, not getting too far.
•    Low productivity: Disorganization and lack of discipline can destroy you. Create blocks of time to focus on the few activities that generate the greatest impact.
•    Fixed mindset: Research by psychologist Carol Dweck shows people falter if they believe their qualities and abilities are set in stone, thus unchangeable – what’s known as a fixed mindset. You’re better off when you believe you can stretch your capabilities through consistent effort.
•    Weak energy: You need lots of energy to work long hours, think clearly, and remain positive. So pay attention to energy sustainers like sleep, diet, exercise, sunlight, music and positive self-talk.
•    Not asking the right questions: Some people skip by the important questions that might help them to get ahead. Examples: “What are my values?” “What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail?” and “Should I even be involved in what I am currently doing?” When facing a major decision it’s vital to ask: “What could go wrong?”
•    Poor presentation skills: Smooth presentations make you look smart, and can propel you ahead.
•    Mistaking IQ for EQ:  We know by now – or should know – that high IQ is not the sole determinant of success. In fact, author Daniel Goleman has reported emotional intelligence is twice as likely to indicate success later in life as IQ. So improve your EQ.
•    Poor self-image: You need a healthy self image to succeed, because it determines what actions you will take and how you will feel every day.
•    Not enough thinking: An obsession with doing, doing, doing is ultimately unproductive. Instead, you must think, think, think. Ideas are golden but these days we suffer from a shortage of thinking time that often we create for ourselves by not being careful in allocating our time.
•    No daily rituals: Build into your day time for important habits, like reading, fitness and visualizing your goals. Reynolds also suggests this happiness ritual: take time to list all the good things in your life.
•    Stress: Stress is debilitating, so embrace stress relievers, from meditation to walks in nature.  
•    Few relationships: You won’t succeed without help. Build an inner circle of about 10 professional and personal colleagues to give you support.
•    Lack of persistence: One of the most crucial reasons people fail is they give up too soon.
•    Money obsession: Building your life around the accumulation of money will lead to misery rather than happiness.
•    Not focusing on strengths: You’ll be more successful if you focus on exercising your strengths at work rather than worrying about shoring up your weaknesses.

Weinzimmer and McConoughey set out three broad categories of failure. The first type is “unbalanced orchestration” at the organizational level, which involves misuse of talent and resources in the short term combined with an inability to focus on a vision for the future. The second is drama management at the team level – lack of discipline, pace and appropriate communication in a team, leading to dysfunctional behaviour. The third category, which focuses on the individual, involves personality faults and a disconnect from reality that inhibits someone from leading effectively.

The authors identified three errors that trip us up in each category. For unbalanced orchestration, those are:
•    Trying to be all things to all people: Ineffective leaders often lack the ability (or good sense) to say no. So they give in to requests from others that draw them away from their strategic direction. In business, the danger is customers clamouring for some specific product or service that is off target for the company, but offers short-term revenue; in government, of course, it’s citizens demanding services that may be off target but promise the potential of votes for the government.
•    Roaming outside the box: We’ve been told repeatedly to think outside the box. But the authors say it’s better to know what box you are in and to explore opportunities within that oasis of understanding.
•    Efficiencies before effectiveness: It’s far more valuable to concentrate on effectiveness, doing the right thing, than blindly focus on efficiency.

The three elements of drama management to beware of are:
•    Bullying management: Bullying managers can be destructive, creating heartache and unnecessary drama in your organization.
•    Dysfunctional harmony: Leaders must avoid the pretenses of harmony, pushing for their staff to be “one happy family” while ignoring the fact not everyone is actually in agreement on strategy or a specific tactic. The danger is that you hide true feelings and arouse passive-aggressive behaviour within your not-so-happy family.
•    Distracted purpose: A leader can create unnecessary drama by encouraging competition within the team that becomes destructive. Also, avoid playing favourites and don’t succumb to the all-too-easy management approach of relying too much on individual talents rather than the building the collective synergy of the group.

The three personality traits that can be particularly destructive are:  
•    Hoarding: This involves the leader viewing himself or herself as superior to everyone else, refusing therefore to delegate, and micromanaging the team.
•    Disengagement: We’ve all seen leaders at the top who are detached from what is happening in their unit, either because they are burned out or are busy gaining acclaim externally.
•    Self-absorption: The biggest mistake, the authors say, is leaders who allow their ego to run wild. Those folk believe they are invincible. But they aren’t, and crash and burn, taking others with them.

Most leadership books focus on success. But by focusing on failure, these two books might help you succeed.

Harvey Schachter is the Globe and Mail columnist for Managing Books and the Monday Morning Manager, and a freelance writer specializing in management issues.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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