The Failure Bow: How To Stop the Blame and Shame Game and Start Learning | Beth's Blog

The Failure Bow: How To Stop the Blame and Shame Game and Start Learning


When you read this post,  I’ll be on a plane to the facilitate the opening plenary at the Legal Services TIG Conference on Wednesday, Jan. 16th.  One of my key themes for the year is to look at failure and learning – and will also have a chance to dive into a conversation at the upcoming COF Conference with colleague Peter Sims, Author of Little Bets and founder of BLKSHP.    His book has a great summary of the research out there on what is failure.

One idea particularly stuck me with — that it is a lot of about mindset change and that there is difference between perfection and failure.   Peter summarizes Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford’s research on the topic.  Her research explains why some people are more willing and able to learn from setbacks.   Her research demonstrated that people tend to lean toward one of two general ways of thinking about failure, though everyone exhibits both.    Those who favor a “Fixed Mindset” are motivated by external praise, getting an “A” or someone staying “Good Job.”  It is hard for those people to learn from a mistake or setback.

The other mindset is called a “growth mindset”  or what I would call curiosity and learning.    They are motivated by the learning process.   If they get a “C,”  they think what can I do to get an “A” – what do I need to change?

I think people and organizations need to shift to the growth mindset when comes to implementing social media – and working networks – and need to incorporate a steady program of measurement and learning.   But often, our feelings of shame or the blame gets in the way.  When I asked nonprofits if they do an after action review, many say yes, but it often turns in pointing figure and people hunching their shoulders.

Stop!   Here’s how.

The 7 minute video above is from Matt Smith who is a Seattle improviser and auctioneer.  He talks about how to altering our physiological response to failure can lead to transparency, availability, flexibility and improved results. The video is short and worth listening to all of it, but if you are impatient skip to minute 7 and listen to the last five minutes.

Matt talks about our inner headsets that we learned as kids and it boils down to:

Don’t Make A Mistake
Don’t Make A Mistake

Then there is the “mistake” moment.   We cringe ….   Think of your last mistake — personal or at work.     Feel what your body does — the cringe, the shame.  What does it feel like.    That’s what is stopping us from learning from mistakes or failure.

Matt says that our body gives in to the mistake.  “It’s like gumby doing the bidding.   I made a mistake!”

No matter you learned this as a child – in school or whatever.    As an adult, it probably still haunts you.   It keeps you from being creative, stops us, but here is a technique to get past it:  The failure bow.  It helps us come to terms with mistakes and clear us for learning. Trapeze artists do it, improvisers, gymnastics stars do it.    Watch this brief video clip and you’ll recognize it.

Next time you make a mistake or your team is doing an after action review, don’t cringe.   Do this instead:

(1)   Raise hands to offer it up and let it go

Flickr Photo from Employment Now

(2)   Give a wide, stupid grin like a dog being trained and uses submission.

(3)   Say “thank you I failed” and move on

Now you are ready to learn!

Matt suggests that you can’t walk into walk into a meeting late and raise your hands and shout this, but you can do it under the table!  If you incorporate the failure bow,  you are not glorifying failure – but rewarding the transparency, being accountable, being in the present, and paving the way to innovation – and perhaps better results with your social media.

How does your organization did with “mistakes” and pave the way for learning from failure?

6 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    Hi, Beth! I love Carol Dweck’s stuff. I interviewed her about two years ago: and recently wrote a piece showing what a growth mindset in a congregation looks like: Seriously, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Once you start thinking about a growth mindset, you’ll see how it works and be able to identify a fixed mindset…of course people don’t have exclusively one or the other.
    If you like the Power Poses idea, check out this Ted Talk. Watch to the end…it’s very inspiring!

  2. Thanks for sharing this video and insight. I have experienced a lot, I mean a lot of failure in my life. However, it’s the risks we take that often lead to the most growth. The biggest failure is never even trying. I ran for president of the student body at my university. I ran for president of my fraternity, twice. Early on in my career, I seemed to never leave a job without being let go (for many reasons, such as not enough clients to sustain the staff levels, communication styles and fit with upper management, organizational restructuring, etc.) You name it, I have probably experienced it. This hasn’t stopped me. It can’t. Having student loans to pay and a family to support wouldn’t allow it. In all of that time, I have experienced a great deal of growth and self-discovery; much more than I think would have happened had I remained at my very first job in a bubble of comfort. Everything that happens to us offers us a chance to make a decision to cope with it. That’s where the true learning happens. I look forward to seeing your insights into this issue.

  3. Barbara Anthony says:

    What Matt doesn’t understand is that the trapeze artist’s “hands up” gesture is meant to let everyone know that he or she is OK and hasn’t been hurt.

    It has nothing to do with making a mistake.

  4. […] Failure Bow – Beth Kanter’s blog post on experimentation and failure (featuring a video by Peter Sims) […]

  5. When you own up to your mistakes, you disarm the would be bashers and punishers. This is also one of those character building moments. Not only do you build it in your own eyes, but also in the eyes of others. They admire you for it even though they may not tell you.

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