No one wants to lose. That’s true whether you’re talking about the Super Bowl, a Congressional election, or a game of chess. So why is it that in the business world, so many talented, well-led teams, enterprises, and organizations—many of them with clear, reasonable goals—fail to win victories that should be easily within their grasp?
It’s because they’ve been infected with a disease I call “failing elegantly.”
Failing elegantly is a refined and veiled set of coping behaviors, designed to avoid embarrassment when the lousy results that we’d prefer no one ever see are uncovered. In other words, it’s a fancy way to lose.
The driving elements are having a sophisticated explanation for the loss and appearing to have tried everything to avoid this outcome. But there are no points for second place.
Here are a few leadership mistakes that put your team in danger of failing elegantly—along with some remedies to get them back into the winner’s mindset.
1. Setting impossible goals
Setting perfect goals is tricky work, but this effort has never been more important than in today’s geographically dispersed, virtual organizations. Leaders need to learn the fine line between an invigorating challenge and a wholly deflating expectation.
While top performers are inspired by “stretch” goals, smart team members will not waste their time training to run a three-minute mile. Goals that are clearly beyond any reasonable confidence of achievement are worse than easy goals—they actually disengage your team. The predictable and natural response is “Why bother?”
2. Allowing pseudo-wins
Very talented people can and do lose focus on the critical problems that must be solved to transform an idea into reality. Those are often the knottiest problems, and sometimes we resist them for a period of time, preferring to create satisfying momentum on easier tasks, or ones that are simply more fun.
Leaders must develop an eye and ear for this weakness and must relentlessly redirect energy to the hard problems, realizing that it is human nature to drift to more emotionally fulfilling project modules.
3. Tolerating common excuses
Too much tolerance can be dangerous, mainly because without a clear line defining acceptable and unacceptable, a blurred line between success and failure follows. When failing elegantly, you tolerate “the dog ate my homework”-style excuses. Massive amounts of energy are poured into justifications and rationalizations, and there is veiled blame for everything outside the team’s control.
What you want are insightful explanations for the gap between expected and actual performance. These often are educated guesses—as informed and objective as they can be. There is tolerance of the simple fact that you don’t have control over every variable in the game, so at times—through either outside forces or simply not having run your best play—the results are not as you wish.
4. Permitting sloppiness
The nice guy in you wants to avoid the perception of being overbearing or dictatorial and will politely look the other way, or catalog it away with some good-natured humor, allowing a corner to be cut, a report to be incomplete, or shoddy work to pass as acceptable. But incomplete work and sloppiness almost always stem from laziness, a lack of commitment, or not having enough pride in the finished work.
Leaders of high-reliability organizations never allow sloppiness, because they know it equals failure. Unusually excellent leaders have a zero-tolerance policy for sloppiness.
5. Encouraging “editorialized” data
One of the most pernicious points where failure can take hold is in the feedback process. Leaders, being eternal optimists and enthusiasts, also have a dangerous tendency to signal, often unconsciously, their dislike of bad news, their inner revulsion toward failure. When that happens—especially when that leader hasn’t regularly established an absolute demand for accurate, objective data—subordinates will begin to shape and color the data to meet the leader’s hopeful expectations and emotional needs, rather than the leader’s intellectual needs. The feedback data starts becoming corrupted, and that in turn begins to undermine the overall strategy—until the likelihood of success itself begins to plummet.
Unusually excellent leaders demand that performance feedback data be delivered promptly and be uncolored, objective, plentiful, and robust. This data is used to figure out what is working and what isn’t, so that corrections to course and speed can be made.
6. Failing to measure what matters
Measuring what matters is perhaps the very highest use of leadership authority. Once the plan is set, the resources and funding are committed, and the action starts, there is mostly just feedback and response to the unknowns of the battle to be managed. The one thing you must have, to make the real-time course corrections that will inevitably be required, is good data. Invest in the design and the machinery required to gather, analyze, and present the data you need—quickly, accurately, and easily. As the Crosby Quality Institute reminds us: You will get what you inspect, not what you expect.
7. Allowing an absolute commitment to winning to slip
If you take a tolerance for excuses, corrupt data that compromises strategy, and a distorted view of what is really happening “out there,” and add the heightened sense of urgency that always characterizes the execution phase, you’ll have plenty of the necessary ingredients in place for systematic failure. The key factor is the resignation and rationalization that occurs when we conclude that winning seems out of reach.
When you’ve begun to distance yourself from your absolute commitment to winning, you start blaming everything and everyone—your teammates, the strategy, bad luck, crooked competitors, insufficient support, and, most of all, the man or woman in charge. The fact that many people—the honest and secure ones first—see what’s happening and hold the behavior in contempt often proves to be an effective vaccine against the contagion spreading.
Passive acceptance of failure, and the rationalization that always goes with it, is a cancer that can begin anywhere in the organization, then metastasize to every office, including your own. You can prevent it by setting clear and precise standards of behavior for everyone on the team, as well as clear consequences for the violation of those standards. And you can control it through continuous and open communication with every member of your team.