The “I am a failure” problem of work

I am a failure

Written before the fear of not being good enough, and this idea — “I am a failure” — will be similar. I think we need to sketch out a few things at the top of this post. Let’s begin there.

First: Even if you’re a blissfully optimistic person, research has shown we’re all beset by negative thoughts virtually all day. We are worried about our ability to perform and excel, especially in an uncertain work environment. This is often why people drown everything at work in process — because process allows you to feel “in control” of certain elements. Doing quality work is often massively subjective, which leads to more feelings of “I am a failure.” We’ve all had the projects we thought we nailed and some boss hates, and it’s depressing.

Second: a lot of work is ultimately about not being seen as incompetent and, instead, being seen as relevant. This is why people love to discuss how busy they are — if you’re busy, clearly someone else has handed you all this work. You then must be both relevant and competent. Busy became social currency.

Third: work is very uncertain right now. There was a massive recession less than a decade ago. Automation is advancing pretty fast. There are different nationalistic flare-ups in major economies. Tech as a whole got to scale much faster than anyone thought. For many people, it’s a nervous, confusing time.

Fourth: priorities at work are often unclear. Job roles are often even less clear. And many managers aren’t very good at their jobs, driving people to (sadly but legitimately) earlier graves as a result.

You add everything above together and there’s many a time where you might find yourself saying “I am a failure,” even when you’re not. What now?

The all-or-nothing “I am a failure” problem

Breathless, cringe-inducing “thought leadership” often talks about “the importance of asking good questions.” I’ve done that too. That’s great to write about, but within companies, usually the focus is on answers — and only answers. This is part of the “high achiever myth.” The theory goes that we’re all so busy, important, productive, and high-achieving that we have no time to deal with questions. We can only get answers!

And as this new article points out, that attitude might be hindering corporate creativity:

We think younger people should embrace creativity more. What I’m seeing is that we have inculcated this how/best way of thinking. You have to be correct. There’s one best solution. You want to be accurate. If you’re not, you’re a failure. This kind of mindset is leading us down not only to where our leaders are not being able to see value in the new, because they’re so focused on making correct decisions, but our young people, too.

Lot to unpack here. Let’s try.

“I am a failure because…”

Think of some of the different reasons you feel you under-performed at work. I’ll run down a couple quickly.

“My boss didn’t listen to or seem to like my new idea.” OK. I understand why that might make someone say “I am a failure.” But did you know, per research, that most managers are actually poor judges of new ideas? Not surprising: managers become managers typically because they got promoted off execution — i.e. checking boxes — and not ideation, i.e. thinking in new ways. Rising up a chain at a standard office usually makes you dumber.

“I was placed on a performance improvement plan.” That may mean you missed some targets, yes, but most PIPs are just a way for your boss to get you fired. It’s not a healthy relationship for you anyway. In these contexts, getting fired might be preferable. You’ll stop saying “I am a failure” if nothing else.

“My boss has referred to me as a bad employee.” Your boss is a moron, because there’s no such thing as a bad employee. “Bad” is not a fixed attitude characteristic of employment. I’ve known dozens of people who sucked at one job and excelled at another — because their manager was different, the support system was different, the commute was different, whatever. “Bad employees” are just “people in the wrong fit.” You could move them around in the same department and make them better, but we often rush to get them out.




 

“I missed a few deadlines.” This isn’t a good thing, no. But why did you have so many tight deadlines in the first place? Was there maybe a lack of priority around what was important?

A quick note on companies and innovation

Many people miss this target, so let me spell it out for you quickly:

  1. Companies are not actually meant to be innovative.
  2. Rather, their focus is to create value for a specific set of stakeholders.
  3. Over time, we have come to confuse “value creation for the few” with “innovation.”
  4. They’re not often the same thing.
  5. If companies valued “innovation,” they’d be getting leaner and more productive.
  6. Instead, this is actually the most bureaucratic time in global business history.
  7. Why does bureaucracy rise up in a company?
  8. Because people want to make more money while doing less.
  9. The name of the game isn’t innovation — that’s simply the buzzword we choose to use.
  10. Instead, the name of the game is getting what’s yours while never having to make real decisions or driving anything forward.

So what’s the broader point here?

A lot of times at work, we’re pushed into situations where the only outcome we have psychologically is to say “I am a failure.” You’re not. Most of work is subjective and emotional, and we try to make it objective and logical. The biggest area this fails in is hiring, but there are 398 additional examples I could give as well.

Managers don’t make this easier. As tech rose up and certain managerial functions became easier, managers should have evolved into dealing more with people. No. That didn’t happen. Instead most managers hide behind more technology — “I left your review in the portal” — and avoid people. This reduces context — if you mostly email with your boss, you have no real idea what’s happening with his priorities every day — and makes people intone “I am a failure” on their nightly commute home. It’s a bad system and the main reason it persists is “We’ve always done it that way!” and/or “Our managers are swamped!” Front-line managers, unsure of their own relevance, cling to two ideas: “I am so slammed!” or “Let me find a way to belittle others to pass on my feelings of hurt and failure.”

Not good. And, sadly, not getting better in the short-term. Profits and processes rule this era, and not people or real discussions about failure. 

What else might you add about this “I am a failure” business culture and what to do now?

Ted Bauer