01 May 2009


Every one faces failure or rejection at some point in their life. Whether it’s a home defeat, an injury , re legation, insolvency or the sack , it’s how you de l with it that really counts . What’s the secret to turning failure into success?

The five stages of grief:

1 Denial – “this can’t be happening”

2 Anger – “why the is this happening!”

3 Bargaining – “you’ve got to give us a couple of minutes extra time to turn this around”

4 Depression – “well, that’s it, we’re going down this season”

5 Acceptance – “some you win…”

Winston Churchill had a great line: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” But it’s Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem, If, that sums it up best: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…”

Clearly, there’s no shortage of advice for handling failure. But that doesn’t make it easy. How many managers get to keep their jobs, even if they can hold onto their enthusiasm, after something ruinous has happened?

How many chairmen or shareholders are happy to write it off as a mere “impostor”?

Nevertheless, facing failure consciously – instead of passively accepting your fate – can have longlasting benefits. The trick, say the experts, is to maintain an objective view of the situation; apply positive thinking; communicate well with the people around you; and learn from your mistakes.

Facing failure

The “five stages of grief” (see top right) apply as much to a major failure or rejection as they do to a bereavement (although psychologists prefer the term “pathological depressive reaction” to “grief” when the loss isn’t as serious as a death). Not everyone experiences all of them each time they face a major setback – but understanding what they mean can be a great way of getting a more objective view when things have gone utterly pear-shaped.

The problem is that only the last phase – acceptance – is really useful to someone facing a crisis. “The most common reaction to a setback is denial – and it can also be the most dangerous response,” says Professor Khalid Aziz, whose consultancy specialises in helping businesspeople to communicate.

“Denial means you don’t prepare to meet the consequences of failure, and where a setback is foreseeable, you don’t do something about it until it’s too late.” For people in leadership positions, this is particularly important – staff and colleagues are looking to you for a lead on how to react.

That’s why it’s important to find that sense of objectivity as soon as possible. Aziz recommends a process he calls “self-talk”.

“A simple way of self-talking is to encapsulate the bad events as if they were a movie – then run it backwards and forwards in your mind or even out loud, until it becomes faintly ridiculous,” he says. “Then use an active, not passive, voice to describe it – so ‘we did this’, rather than ‘this happened to us’. That helps you to see how much control you have over the setback.

“Then you need to set limited aims for recovery – not a complete reversal of the failure, but three things you can do tomorrow or next week to contribute to your bounceback, bearing in mind that the only things you should worry about are things within your control.”

Positive thinking

That period of acceptance and reflection is much easier if you have a positive mindset.

“I think back to the bleak period [after being sacked by Derby County], when I was out of work for eight months and wondering if football had turned its back on me,” says Hull City manager Phil Brown. “But, at the end of the day, you have to keep on believing that you are the man and that you can do the job.”

That kind of positive thinking is critical to bouncing back. Psychologists believe you can develop and fine-tune your emotional resilience to ensure you don’t get overwhelmed by negative thinking.

“That ability to fight harder when things get tough is the very definition of resilience,” says Danielle Heffernan, psychologist at business coaching centre The Mind Gym.

“Bouncing back is much harder when negative emotions are in play. You start to see setbacks as permanent and universal; you can’t see any alternative to your current predicament. But when you use positive emotions, you open up your mind – it creates a sense that there are options, that you have choices.”

Heffernan says one of the secrets to making this work is applying positive thinking to every situation, even minor setbacks, so when major failure happens you’re trained to be positive. “The hard part is finding ways of choosing the positives without in any way ignoring, denying or dismissing the facts of the setback,” she adds. That’s often a question of establishing what she calls “the locus of control” – understanding what you can influence, then using that control to effect an outcome positively.

It works. Ian Denny’s business went bust two years ago. During the insolvency process he drew on advice from management coach Hugh Jones about focusing on the things he could change.

“He reminded us that a positive attitude had helped the company expand, and explained how to filter out distractions using the ‘reticular activator’ to focus on your goals,” Denny says. (The reticular activator is the part of the brain that allows you to focus on a task – in primitive times, it would improve concentration on hunting food or escaping from danger.)

The result? Denny and his core team were able to set up a new business immediately and ensure their customers weren’t let down.

Heffernan explains that, as well as staying focused on solutions, resilient people tend to be able to keep setbacks in perspective. “Positive people treat failure as temporary and specific – ‘we did this wrong, and as a result that happened; now we know better, we won’t fail again,’” she says. “That ability to isolate failure is crucial, because as soon as you go into a situation believing you’re going to fail, you will.”

It’s good to talk

Staying positive and isolating setbacks sounds easy, but how does it work in practice? “It’s easy to focus on the negatives,” says Denny. “But it was when we started talking with clients about how we might continue to provide support – perhaps as a new company – that we got really positive feedback. It was a springboard to help us bounce back.”

It’s not just a question of talking the ears off anyone in ear-shot when your back’s against the wall. “Knowing who needs to be informed and what you’re going to say is important,” says Aziz. “The messages must be consistent, with a different emphasis depending on who you’re talking to.” You’re bound to have different conversations about the same setback with your wife, your chairman and the media – but each one can help you get a perspective, and get closer to bouncing back.

“Where people do feel beleaguered by a failure, it’s usually because they haven’t shared their problems. People around them feel out of the loop, which deepens their despair and leaves them feeling let down as well,” Aziz says.

A fresh start

For many people, a major setback is actually the opportunity they need to re-establish a positive mindset. The period leading up to a failure can involve intense pressure – and the negative emotions become overwhelming.  That means it’s easy to lose sight of the things that are going well.

Sam Allardyce certainly feels he benefited from his 11 months outside football, after a spell in the pressure cooker at St James’s Park. “It brings back a certain amount of reality and clarity, because as managers we live in such a transparent and highly pressurised world,” he says. “When you are doing the job 24/7 during the season, year in and year out, you have to be careful that it doesn’t absorb your life and cloud your judgement.”

And failures tend to teach us much more than successes. “Going bust and then coming back was one of the best things to have happened to us,” says Denny. “Learning from the experience was critical: now we know we’ll never again lose sight of the things that make us special. We are fully focused on the things that matter.”

Prof Aziz also stresses the danger of not reflecting on – and learning from – setbacks. “The worst failures are the ones where you don’t really understand what’s happened,” he says. “In many cases, you actually need to create a culture of being prepared to fail – so long as the people involved retain their perspective, learn from it and can avoid the mistakes in the future.”

That’s not to say you have to fail to obtain a more balanced perspective or learn lessons. But it is a reminder that there are positives in life that it’s all too easy to forget when times are tough. Or, as social scientist Havelock Ellis once said, “It is on our failures that we base a new and different and better success.”


Sam Allardyce, manager, Blackburn Rovers FC

What happened?

When the takeover [of Newcastle United] happened, I tried to address the problem immediately by saying that if I wasn’t their man, fine, bring their own man in. But the owners wanted me to carry on and I wanted to give them a plan of the way forward. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, after the few months that I was there, they chose not to go with that strategy and to move me on.

How did you handle that?

There was an angry period when it first happened – then reflection. You run through the whole scenario of what you did and didn’t do. You question what things you did well, what you could have done better and what you would change.

That period of reflection is critical to your next move: you need to be honest with yourself, review everything and make sure that your experiences help you to become a better manager.

Then there is calm. I underwent a complete change of life; suddenly I was only responsible for myself and my family, rather than 60 or 70 people who automatically depend on you at a football club, plus the fans. There is a period of adjustment when you feel rather uncomfortable and edgy.

Then, all of a sudden, the phone stops ringing and you find you’re no longer suffering from sleep deprivation, which you generally do as a manager. I could go on holiday and see new places with my wife.

But I always intended to return to management and I started getting itchy feet after six months or so.

What was your secret to bouncing back?

I look for perfection, and perfection is beyond success. While I know that’s unattainable, it’s important to have it as a goal. Not everyone around you will share that same goal of perfection, or your ideas on where you should be going and how you want to get there. I suppose half the job is convincing people, particularly your owners or directors, that you know better than them. Even though you are employed as the expert, people will still think they know better than you.

I think the experience of failure or rejection – however unwanted at the time – adds another dimension to your management skills. It teaches you something to become a better manager again.

Ian Denny, MD of IT support company Multisolutions

What happened?

Our failure was down to a combination of factors, starting with the fact that the company was being run by a committee of external investors who weren’t that close to the business. We were compromising every decision. Yet we did grow spectacularly; in a sense, we were victims of our own success. Our lines of credit didn’t keep pace with the need for cash to sustain the growth. You could call that naïve – everyone knows that lack of cash is the thing that kills business.

Eventually, insolvency became the most obvious option. Everything we had was mortgaged to the hilt and there was no way out. There were a lot of tears, redundancies and even a little relief. We must have known that it was the only realistic option.

How did you deal with it?

We couldn’t just shrug off our moral obligations – we resisted the temptation to do a runner from friends and suppliers. We made every effort to keep people with us and to do the right thing. That meant calling everyone and explaining what was happening, trying to find out how we could make it right.

We tried to confront every negative aspect of the insolvency and turn it into a positive. For example, our telecoms suppliers really appreciated our honesty about the situation. We knew if we could get a business started again, we would be able to provide them with many client referrals. We couldn’t promise what we didn’t have, so we found anything we could control and offered that instead. We had to have the courage to ask for help from a lot of suppliers, and to swallow our pride. It would have been foolish to run away after we’d learned so many lessons. A lot of bouncebackability is down to personality, but forgiving mistakes and hoping to be forgiven is also key, as is confidence and openness.

Phil Brown, manager, Hull City FC

What happened?

I think I shifted the goalposts too fast at Derby County and tried to change people’s mentality too quickly. If the people around you don’t want to be changed or aren’t as fast paced as you are, that won’t work. It has to be a slow process. I have been able to effect change at Hull City because they were ready for it. There was a desire to change.

How did you learn from it?

Development is key for any manager. If you don’t learn through feedback then you are a foolish man. I take experiences at face value and try to educate myself from them. The days when a manager might say “this is how we’ve done it for 100 years and this is the way we are still going to do it” are long gone.

My assistant manager, Brian Horton, and first team coach, Steve Parkin, have about 1,400 games behind them and they are still learning. So why not me?

I’ve always been an ambitious and positive man; I set my sights high. One thing that has surprised me is how quickly success has come around. Having sampled the winds of change at Derby and seen how quickly people can turn against you when you are trying to change, I was just surprised at how rapidly things happened at Hull City.

I’m lucky that I came to this position at the right time, in charge of a tremendous football club. Life is all about the pathways that you cross. I crossed my chairman Paul Duffen’s pathway and he crossed mine at the right time.

What advice can you offer someone facing a setback?

Analyse what went wrong and learn from it. Without the experience [of being sacked at Derby County] I wouldn’t be able to do what I am doing today. The learning curve that I went up has stood me in tremendously good stead for what we are achieving at Hull City at this moment in time.