People always question failure. What about questioning success?

Question Success As Much As Failure

Almost regardless of the job level you have, if you’ve failed at something at work, someone has been up in your arse crack about it. “Why did that happen? I need answers!” People can be miserable, especially middle managers — who typically confuse the concept of “accountability” and “scaring someone.” The sad part about failures at work is that you’ll get reamed for them, but there won’t be an actual conversation about why the thing failed; there will just be a reaming. That’s often how the working world plays it.

Businesses don’t like failure — because margins are tight and we need to maintain a competitive advantage! — but they love success. The ironic thing is: when success is achieved, it’s often not questioned. It’s just, well, accepted. People tend to assume it has some connection to how hard their team worked, the virtues of what they did, the never-say-die attitude, the balls-in-the-air, etc. People love to equate their success to the same reason an athlete or the military would achieve success, even though organizations are almost never run in the same way as those entities.

So let’s summarize the above, briefly: we question/yell at people about failure, but we mostly just accept success. See how that’s dangerous?

Take this example, recently seen in Fast Company:

Cole saw this years ago when she was working at a Hooters restaurant. Sales were great compared to comparable restaurants, so the higher-ups came in to celebrate. They informed the staff that “You’ve got one of the best managers,” she recalls. “We were like what? There’s something you don’t know.” In reality, he was a fairly ineffective manager, but there was a large construction site nearby, and the workers were in for lunch daily. A little more digging would have turned this up. When you don’t question success in a situation like this, you risk promoting an incompetent manager into a situation where he can do real harm. “You could be celebrating something you absolutely don’t want to duplicate, but you don’t realize that,” says Cole.

This becomes a massively slippery slope in about 10 seconds. People predominantly get promoted at jobs because of connections and politics, but also because of their ability to generate revenue. (You’re not going to pay someone $250K if they’re not bringing in more than that, right? That’s simple math.)

The problem is this: the fiscal success of people is periodically (maybe even often) nothing more than serendipity, like the example above. But top-brass guys see that, they just take the success at face value without context, and they advance the manager. He/she could be a terrible manager of people (often the case), a terrible manager of revenue (sometimes the case), and really was just in a situation where he/she got lucky in the last post — because of a nearby construction site.

Now you have a manager (harder to fire) who makes his/her team want to throw themselves off a bridge and probably isn’t even a great revenue person anyway. In one step, because you accepted success without background, you’ve slightly regressed your company.

A simple solution here: three whys.

In the situation above, then? Start with this: This particular store is successful.

Why is it successful?

It has a good manager, good team, and good location.

Why is he/she a good manager?

He/she keeps costs down and works well with his/her people.

Why does he/she work well with people?

He/she values it, probably.

By this point, you’d need to be talking to the actual employees. You’d learn something. You’d have a little background for the success, and realize it was more accidental than deliberate.

Bottom line: organizations will always question and scream about and analyze (but not fix the core problems) related to failure, but maybe we should apply the same focus (with just a bit more analysis) to our examples of success.


Ted Bauer


  1. While reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the book “Accidental Empires” by Robert X. Cringely, a hilarious exposition on the early growth of the personal computer industry, about how some big names succeeded despite gross mismanagement and chaos, while other seemingly more capable companies failed. The name says it all. While top companies may appear predestined for success, a little digging might show that a small change in circumstances or luck could have produced a very different outcome.

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