Podcast: How to fail well and build your resilience at work
Podcast: How to fail well and build your resilience at work
Careers are full of satisfying, challenging, and rewarding moments but there can also be times when we feel out of our depth, inadequate or depleted. In these instances, resilience is important, it can help us to understand failure and respond to it quickly and bounce back.
So today, we’re joined by Dr Susan Kahn, Business Psychologist and coach, and author of the book Bounce Back. Susan is here to share her expert advice to help those looking to build their resilience in the workplace.
To purchase Dr Susan Kahn’s book ‘Bounce Back’, please click here
1. Please could you introduce yourself to our listeners and tell us a little bit more about your background and your career to date?
(01:09) Yes of course, as you introduced, I am a psychologist, but I began my career in the telecoms industry. And early on, I became really interested in management and leadership, what motivated individuals, and what made people successful in leadership. So, development was always an interest and I trained as a consultant using psychoanalytic methods. So, this was a transformative time in understanding below the surface dynamics, not just what is presented on the surface.
And I’m now part academic working within the Department of Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck, and also an executive coach and a mediator, trying to bring all the threads of my career together in both a way of teaching and also practising what I preach.
2. What sparked your interest in resilience, and led you to write the book Bounce Back?
(02:10) Well, I’ve always been fascinated by what makes one individual appear vulnerable and another appear very strong, but during the financial recession, I was lucky enough to be doing some research in a failed bank. And I had a ringside seat into exploring the experience of loss and endings and trying to understand why it was that some coped with the challenges of redundancy and failure, and others seemed able to work through this. So, it became something of a fascination which led to another book, but also led to my work with Kogan Page on Bounce Back.
3. You mentioned a concept in your book of ‘failing fast’, which is a framework that allows employees the space to make mistakes. Could you explain this concept in a little more detail?
(03:08) Yes, of course. The term ‘fail fast’ comes from system design and is process by which as soon as a mistake or a flaw is noted, it’s very quickly changed and updated. This is something that the scientific community is very familiar with the constants of hypotheses testing and revising. And, entrepreneurs who almost embrace failure as a chance to learn, you’re not really considered as a serious entrepreneur unless you’ve got a couple of failures behind you.
But at work, we have this misplaced notion that somehow, we should be able to do challenging things first time. And by shifting, changing, pivoting, and learning from our mistakes, we become much more successful at work rather than digging in our heels and doing what we’ve always done despite that failure. So certainly, embracing failure and dealing with it quickly is a route to success, not a route to failure.
4. Why else do you think it’s so important that employees embrace failure?
(04:19) Well, I think the essence of it is that failure is at the heart of growth and development. If we’re striving to gain wisdom or expertise or understanding, we must go through a constant cycle of making mistakes, of learning from our mistakes and then recognising that that cycle is a perpetual one. That we’ll always need to carry on learning and trying and even when we’ve reached a level of expertise, that that cycle continues. Essentially, in order to develop and grow, we must acknowledge that we’ll fail along the way.
5. And how can our listeners embrace failure and learn from their mistakes? And what effect could this have on their careers potentially?
(05:06) I think firstly, it’s important to note that the failure isn’t necessarily enjoyable for most people. We are all vulnerable and fallible, and it’s not a pleasant experience to know that something we put our heart and soul into has not been successful. And of course, we might be fearful of how that’s judged and viewed. But whilst it is humbling and at times uncomfortable, it’s important to know that inevitably we’re going to fail. Nobody runs through their career or their life, indeed, without stumbles along the way.
And it’s a good starting point to just register that, and crucially to know that these mistakes can have a profound difference to our future actions and future career choices. So, it’s something that the greatest leaders have learned, that it’s okay to be vulnerable and flawed. It demonstrates humanity and confidence and a learning mindset. We’re not talking here about making the same mistake repeatedly, of course, that’s not to be recommended, but just taking time to pause and learn so that the same error doesn’t happen again.
6. Going back to the concept of failing fast- that is seen as being key to developing resilience. Please could you share with our listeners how you define the term resilience?
(06:27) Yes, it’s something which is come into common parlance, and I think that going to the etymology of resilience is a good way to understand it. It comes from the Latin word ‘resilient’, which is literally translated as “bounce back”, the ability to return to our path once we’ve been knocked off course. And it’s very important to stress that when we do bounce back from whatever adversity or failure or difficulty we’ve encountered, we’re not the same. We can continue the path to try again, but we’re not the same individuals as we were before the experience we had.
So, bouncing back is in many ways also a bouncing forward as a newly developed individual with additional understanding and insight. So, we’ve heard so much about bounce back over the past year and I think really, it’s just at the heart of resilience, the ability to get back on track despite the difficulties that you’ve encountered.
7. And what are the key benefits of resilience? And do you think this is becoming even more important as we find ourselves in this ever-changing world of work?
(07:52) I mean, as you rightly point out, work is changing so rapidly, it’s unrecognisable from even a decade ago. And those times when we had a predictable career path are long gone. The fourth industrial revolution has bought with it so many changes that make work unrecognisable; technology, language, leadership and change management.
So, we must be able to adapt and grow and to learn and to be resilient to the fact that change will be constant. We must forgive ourselves some failures along the way because we will be forever immersed in a constantly changing environment. Working with home is a good example of what we’ve all had to adjust to, and I purposefully say working with home rather than working at home, because alongside home comes so many other interruptions and demands, particularly calling out to anybody who’s been home-schooling during the last year.
8. What do you think the typical traits of a resilient person are?
(09:09) I’m passionate in believing that we all have capacity for resilience. This isn’t a binary concept, it’s not like you have it and I don’t. It’s something that can be developed in all of us. It’s not static, we’re not always at our most resilient all the time, but in terms of the most important elements for me, I think it’s around mindset. Looking at events through a growth mindset, and the work of Carol Dweck is very relevant here. Rather than fixed thinking, looking at something with an eye to potential, to opportunity. Not allowing disaster or disappointment to define this, but to look at that as something with a path to something else. So, mindset.
And then I think this recognition that adversity doesn’t discriminate. We are all going to be having tremendously challenging times, even when we come out of this pandemic and accept that things will go wrong, that there will be suffering, but that we are perhaps stronger than we think and we will be able to work through these things. And maybe finally, self-compassion, forgiving yourself, allowing yourself to learn from those mistakes.
9. What can our listeners do to develop their own resilience? And do you have any strategies that they can follow that would help them achieve this?
(10:48) Yes, I mean, Bounce Back has got about fifty exercises in it to help you to access your inner resilience and to tap into what you need to do. But just to mention a few here today,
I think the important thing that we often do for others but forget to do for ourselves is acknowledge our strengths. To take time to note when you have been resilient. We’re very quick to dismiss positive activities that relate to ourselves, narcissistic personalities excluded from this and negative things stick like Velcro to us. And yet, being able to acknowledge those times that we have done things which are very positive, very strong, that indicate resilience is an important thing to do to almost make a practice of noting the good things that have happened during the day. And there’s lots of research to back up that even doing something simple, like noting three good things that have happened during the day, will change the neural pathways in your brain after just a few months to allow you to think differently about yourself. So, I think that’s a very important thing to acknowledge your strength.
Secondly, that you are allowed a bad day. Resilience ebbs and flows, and we’re not always going to be in our sterling best condition. We are at times going to feel a little less than we could be, and that’s okay. You can have a bad day, but each of us, and this will be very different for you, for me, for anyone, is what helps you when you’re feeling vulnerable and what gets in the way. For example, I’m someone who particularly relishes peace and quiet but I have other colleagues and friends who, when they’re feeling in need, desperately want to talk to another person or to be in a social environment. So, knowing what’s right for you, and that comes to the idea of self-awareness, understanding what’s important for you.
And I suppose finally, the thing that I would love everybody to do right now is just to abandon any notion of “perfect”. I, myself am a retired perfectionist, and it’s a very wonderful place to be. It’s unrealistic and unhelpful to imagine that we’re going to get everything right all the time, that we’re going to please everyone, that we’re going to be successful in every endeavour. And by allowing that notion of perfection to go, we can begin to build our resilience by looking at what we are capable of and forgiving ourselves those small imperfections along the way.
10. It seems that self-awareness is important to developing resilience, would you agree?
(13:45) Yes, absolutely. I think self-awareness is a very important first step. but alongside that self-awareness needs to also be self-compassion. So, we might, for example, recognise that we’re a people pleaser who is very keen to say yes to any requests however inconvenient or demanding or inappropriate that might be. And we might find it hard to say no, but we should, in addition to that self-awareness, develop a bit of self-compassion to say, “It’s okay to say no. I can’t do that at the moment.” And to find strategies to practice those quick no’s that allow you to connect your self-awareness with self-compassion and then ultimately action as well. So, we protect ourselves from burnout and getting unnecessarily frazzled.
11. Is there anything else that our listeners can do in addition to what you’ve already discussed, to build their resilience?
(14:53) I mean, it’s a huge topic, but I think it’s important to emphasise that the mind and body are connected, and we need to take care of our physical selves to be mentally resilient. So simple things that we’ve heard a hundred times, but maybe don’t always eventually do is just to keep moving, to stay hydrated, to get some regular sleep. And above all, as I’ve mentioned, self-compassion and knowing you have the potential to grow from adversity, even if it is painful and difficult.
12. If you had one piece of advice to help our listeners navigate their careers throughout the pandemic and beyond, what would that be?
(15:42) I think that what we’ve learnt so profoundly this year but is a lesson we should have with us all the time, is that we must stay open to different possibilities. That our careers might not have taken the path we expected over the last year, and they certainly might not next year, but other doors may open. To stay curious, to keep learning. And of course, to know that if things aren’t as you hoped, you do have an opportunity to bounce back.
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