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Respond to failure the right way

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Peter Bregman was visiting friends, when his friends’ daughter, Dana, returned from a swim meet. She was close to tears.

Bregman, CEO of management firm Bregman Partners, and the others stood in the foyer as Dana plopped down onto the staircase.

“I was disqualified,” she said. She swam well, but dove in a fraction of a second before the starting gun went off.

 “Honey,” her dad said, “there are a lot more swim meets in the season. You’ll have other chances to win.”

Bregman added, “The fact that you left the block prematurely means you were at your edge. You misjudged the timing but that’s OK.”

Those words didn’t help.

Then Dana’s grandmother, Mimi, sat down next to her and quietly put her arm around her and said, “I know how hard you work at this, honey. It’s sad to get disqualified.” Then Dana began to cry.

Eventually Dana looked up at her grandmother, wiped her tears, and said, “Thanks, Mimi.”

Bregman thought to himself, ­“Every leader, every manager, every team ­mem­ber, should see this.”

All of them—except Mimi—had missed what Dana needed.

They tried to make her feel better by helping her see the advantage of failure, teaching her to learn from it, and motivating her to get better.

But she already knew it, or if she didn’t, she’d figure it out. What she didn’t have, and what Mimi reached out and gave her? Empathy.

“I wanted every leader, manager and team member to see that, because the empathetic response to failure is not only the most compassionate, it’s also the most productive,” says Bregman.

People perform best when they feel trusted. Not only that, but feeling OK about yourself when you fail is what motivates you to get up and try again.

To show empathy, just listen. Don’t ­offer advice or say that things will be all right.

It’s hard to just listen and not solve a problem. But it’s worth the effort.

— Adapted from “The Right Way to Respond to Failure,” Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review blog.

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