I recently spoke to Lise Ribeiro about failure and resilience. In her role as Head of Whole Person Working, Lise leads on the Resilience and Wellbeing Network. Here she talks about her personal experience of failure – and success – and how she reacts to failure and reframes it to maximise learning.
I know you did some interviews last year, with various people, about resilience. So thinking about those, but also about other conversations you have had, what have you learned from other people about failure and resilience?
What I’ve learned from other people and what I am using myself now is that doing something that isn’t a success isn’t a bad thing. It’s what you take from it that’s important. So when I was younger I wouldn’t want to fail. I did not want to be seen as not being able to do something. What I have learned from other people now is that if you do your very best to achieve something but somehow it doesn’t quite work out the way you want it to, then you look at where it failed and learn from that and try again. I am as invested in learning how I do things as in a successful outcome. Of course that’s something we would all like, but I’m more interested in learning how I do things along the way.
So is there a process that you go through in order to reframe an experience when you look back on it?
Yes, I think there is. We are all human of course, so if you find that something has failed, right in that moment when you realise that things aren’t going the way that you think they are going to go, that might be upsetting, you might blame yourself, you might blame others. I’ve learned not to go with the knee-jerk reaction and to reflect more on why and how it’s happened. To be honest, to talk about it, and to try and get others to help you figure out why did this not succeed. Try and look at it from a different angle and see if there’s something we can do to get an outcome that we are happy with.
So it sounds like you started to be able to do that inside the process, while the activity or experience is happening. It’s not just something that you are able to look back on later and learn from, it’s live learning while it’s going on, that you are less responsive, more able to take a step back.
Yes, I think so. That’s something I can do now, but I couldn’t have done that 20 years ago. It comes with self-development, it comes with self-awareness and it comes with working with people who work in the same way. Those three things – self-development, self-awareness, and being surrounded by people who have a similar way of working and thinking – are a huge help.
Yeah. And some of that is around having strong relationships, and knowing those people well, trusting them and having that kind of open environment where it is ok to fail. There isn’t a blame culture.
Have you got a particular experience of a time when you have ‘failed’ but you might have learned a lot from it?
A few years ago I had a re-contracting meeting with a big client. It was a client that had been with us for a long time and I was not the one who originally had got the business, but I was the one who lost it. And I felt initially really, really responsible for that. It was on my watch. And initially I felt a huge responsibility, because I knew this client had been with us for a long time, I knew the work that had been put into getting it, and I was the one who was holding it and nurturing at the time that this happened. So that took me quite a lot of conversations to look at how come I was feeling like that, but also getting more perspective on what had actually happened, with people who I was working with, where I knew it was ok to say how I felt. Having those kind of conversations and getting feedback from others was really, really helpful. In a way that helped me to continue having a relationship with that client, not in the same way that we had before in terms of business, but still working with them, and that relationship exists today and is a lot closer now, funnily enough, than it was. I think that’s an example of how you can still get an outcome that’s ok from something you think is a failure.
What do you do to help other people when they are in situation that could be classed as a failure?
What I tend to do is to try and get them to look at it from a different angle, to try and figure out with them where they think the failure has happened, and to look at why. There’s always something positive in it, so trying to work out what they think the positive is, and how they can do things differently another time to get a different outcome.
And is there an element of emotional support so they are not blaming themselves and they are able to turn a negative into a positive and it’s not just intellectual learning?
That’s a big part of it. You are supporting someone emotionally as well as trying to reflect on the actual thing that’s gone wrong.
Is there anything now that you consider a failure? How would you define it? Or would you redefine it as something else? I notice you are not comfortable even using the word ‘failure’.
I’m not comfortable using the word because out in the world a failure is a bad thing. In the majority of cases I don’t think a failure is a bad thing. You can always learn from what didn’t happen when you thought something was going to happen. I would prefer to talk about it as if it’s something that I have tried and it hasn’t worked out the way I imagined it would, rather than label it as a failure.
So that leaves you free to experiment and take risks, knowing that sometimes it won’t work in the way you expected, but something different might come of it?
Yes and I think what that has done over the years is made me more able to work outside my comfort zone, knowing that there’s always something to learn and something that will happen, even if it’s not always quite what you expect.
And is there anything you think about when you have a success that could be an opportunity for learning? In terms of building your resilience?
I look at how I dealt with my son’s illness as quite successful and I have definitely learned a lot from that. I have learned to be quite open about things that can be difficult to talk about, I have learned that it’s ok sometimes to put on brave face, but it’s also really important to recognise those feelings. To talk openly about not wanting my emotions to run the show but also knowing that sometimes they would. I learned about my emotional response to upsetting things and how I worked with it was really helpful, to keep an equilibrium, especially in the first three months, which were very difficult.
And even that example reflects the risk taking of trying something out that is going to be out of your comfort zone!
We’ve talked about the positive aspects of failure, and I wonder if in some ways success can be a negative – almost a double-edged sword?
There can be a danger of being complacent, if you are wanting to do something and it happens – and not think, ‘how did I do that then and how can I use that in another way?’ So yes, complacency is definitely a danger to success. And I can’t say that I am not guilty of that at times, because I think I am, but I do know that in the last 4 or 5 years I definitely question myself a lot more around things that go well and how I can apply it somewhere else. I try not to ride it as a good wave, but being aware of what’s coming towards me.
So there’s something about applying the same principles of reviewing and reflecting and support to either case, and not allowing emotions, good or bad, to run the show.
Great, thank you Lise.