Be a student of failure

3 factors that cause people to fail in the workplace.

August 24, 2021

My dad taught me to be a student of other people’s experiences. In doing so, I could learn what works in life and what causes disappointments. 

He said it is important to read about the successes of people I admire. More importantly, he advised me to pay closer attention to others’ failures.

Our credit unions depend on successful employees and colleagues. We need everyone’s energy, creativity, work ethic, and tenacity to serve our members. 

Most of us offer tools to help our employees be at their best. Our commitment is real and enduring. Yet it does not always lead to good results.

While we don’t often talk about failure, we know it exists. When a colleague fails professionally, it’s painful. 

It is personally difficult for me to admit that someone is not performing to our standards or we have disappointed our membership.

Failure can be a tender episode in our lives. None of us fail intentionally. We’d like to have a successful career, happy family, and a fulfilled life. 

Unfortunately, failures occasionally happen. To avoid facing this outcome, it may be helpful to observe how some people fail.

I have found that three factors often cause people to fail in the workplace:

1. Hubris

When you think you’re smarter than everyone else, failure is just around the corner. No one has the market cornered on intelligence and experience. So, it behooves us to collaborate with others because they bring unique perspectives to decision points.

People who are dismissive of others are more than just plain rude and insensitive. They are careless. Carelessness creates opportunities for mishaps. Enough mistakes and failure follow.

To avoid failing, we should hone our skills to mine others for the little nuggets of knowledge they bring to improve our business decisions.

Every mistake our organization has made has resulted from a lack of diversity. We thought we had the right ideas and information, but we failed to invite the right people to the dialogue. Alas, we later realized our overconfidence misled us.

When presented with an issue, I assume from the outset I have inadequacies. I probably don’t have all the facts. I likely failed to ask the right questions from the outset.

I caution myself not to be too quick to draw conclusions. This approach encourages me to be patient and not overly confident.

Read about the successes of people you admire and pay close attention to others’ failures.

2. Meanness

Few of us like mean people. I have not met a person who says they like to be treated with disrespect and unkindness.

I don’t believe anyone thrives under hostile conditions. No one appreciates a supervisor who degrades you and makes you feel insecure.

I don’t get mean people. It seems like a simple notion that I should treat others the way I want to be treated. If I am at my best when the environment is conducive, I should assume my colleagues want the same advantages.

Disrespectful manners are contrary to our commitment to the membership. If a nasty attitude is counterproductive, our negative behavior harms the credit union. 

This is not good for the membership. Someone who displays bad conduct is a liability to the membership.

Leaders who fail often have bad dispositions. I don’t know if they were rotten people all along or if an approaching catastrophe made them bitter.

Chicken or egg. In either case, regulators, boards, and members are eager to get rid of somebody they do not like.

Over the years, I have had to dismiss employees. I’m not proud of this. It hurts my feelings and heart to tell a colleague they have failed.

When this happens, it’s almost always due to having a bad attitude. We can help a team member with a skills gap. But if you are a foul person who poisons relationships, it is difficult to fix the problem.

3. Conflicting loyalties

As employees, we owe a duty of loyalty in our work. Our faithfulness belongs to the members. When we mislead ourselves that what we do is for vain reasons, we move away from the very reason our jobs exist.

You may have heard the term “conflict of interest.” This is a scenario where we put our personal interests ahead of the members who own the credit union. I realize in a tossup, my needs come second to the membership.

Folks who fail from a conflict of loyalty believe they are more important than the membership. This is never the case. Membership and their rights trump all. Failure arises when this dynamic is confused.

Misplaced loyalties can mislead us to believe that friendships are more important than our professional responsibilities. A misunderstanding of loyalty may cause us to believe shortcuts on the job are acceptable.

Loyalty is a binary equation. Our decisions are either good for the membership or not.

No one wants to fail. Our members depend on us to be successful. Let’s learn from others’ fates to avoid making the same mistakes.

MAURICE SMITH is CEO of Local Government Federal Credit Union and Civic Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C.