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What happens when your team fails?

There is nothing like being on the top of a mountain. If you have never had the opportunity to hike, you have to experience it. There is such a sense of accomplishment and exhilaration after you have completed a climb. When I make it to the top of each peak, I spend time taking in the views and marveling at the beautiful landscape that is painted before me. I try not to rush the experience.

While I am at the top, I try to take a few minutes to see how I am doing. Check in with my breathing or see if I should rest a little longer before heading back down. Because it is always easier and faster to get down than to go up, I take my time on the descend. Well, in my mind, I am becoming a seasoned hiker, so in an attempt to increase my endurance, I started incorporating intervals of jogging throughout the hike.

The other day, as I was making my way down the mountain, I started jogging. Admittedly, I generally jog up the mountain. Being mindful that I am new to this, I slowed down when I thought the rocks were too rough or if I could not see a clear path. As I was making my way down, in record time might I add, I found myself one with the mountain. My body had somehow fallen gracefully into the rough terrain. It seemed like I fell in slow motion, but could not catch myself before I inadvertently kissed the ground.

Before I knew it, I was back on my feet running again. Like nothing had ever happened. A couple of voices gasp, "Oh my gosh." and others yelled out, "Are you okay?" "Yes, I am fine, thanks," I replied with a wave, as I quickly stood to my feet and kept moving as though nothing had happened. I was so focused on beating my time, completing the hike, and oh yeah, recovering from the embarrassment that I did not think about whether or not I was okay. I did not take the time to assess my situation or pain. I laughed at myself as I kept my jogging pace downhill.

Colliding with the mountain made me think about how often tough situations occur in the workplace and we hear the response, “I am fine” but rarely take the time to assess to see how the team is really doing. Falling down or failing is not the worst that can happen. Not following up to assess the team members or accepting the mediocrity that comes after if you do not take the time to learn from the team's missteps are both far worse than the fail. Here is what this hike taught me.

Don't be in such a rush to move on. When I am at the top of the mountain, there is a sense of clarity. I mentioned in Vol. 1 Organizational Performance that being on the mountaintop gives me a panoramic view of my surroundings. In moments of pure bliss or pure disappointment, we have the ability to see more and articulate our experiences better than if it were weeks later. Leaders have to stop long enough to check in with the team so they do not miss out on learning opportunities and to set the bar for better outcomes in the future.

When your team is experiencing a win or something worth celebrating, pause in those moments, not only celebrate but to write down some of the lessons learned in the victory. Since the team is already excited, it is a great opportunity to create positive engagement and explore expansive and innovative ideas about how to enhance what has been accomplished. Or at least note, what worked well in the process so that it can be repeated.

In those tough moments, where it seems like a perfect storm just passed, take the time to discuss what happened. Create a safe space for the team to learn from their mistakes. It is a great time to see if a standard operating procedure needs to be revisited or established. Remember, this is not a time to single out individuals, but more of a time to focus on improving processes to ensure that the team is better equipped in the future.

A good approach would be to facilitate a plus/delta debrief to determine what transpired (start with the plus). Looking at the processes only not people (be careful of the blame game, it counteracts teamwork). Then ask the team to take a couple of days to think about it, talk it over within their departments and write out a few suggestions regarding what could be done in the future to improve the process. Have a follow-up meeting to deepen the discussion and tighten up the processes. Performing an exercise like a service blueprint or process mapping could help identify gaps and inefficiencies. It would be beneficial to incorporate some of their ideas if they help to creates efficiencies in the process.

Take the time to assess the members of the team. Not to evaluate but to ensure that they are okay. People tend to take losses personally. So after the debrief meetings schedule individual one-on-ones to ask how they are doing. In a group or in passing, it is natural to say, “I am fine,” but as leaders, we have to create a safe space for people to share, especially when you suspect they might be frustrated or beating themselves up over what happened. You can create a safe space when you share a vulnerable story, like…

The other day, I was running down a mountain and fell in front of several people. I didn’t even check to see if I was okay, I just jumped up and started back running. It wasn’t until I made it home that I realized that both of my knees and hip were bloody and bruised. Not to mention my pride...

It will break the ice, maybe get a chuckle or two, but it reminds them that we are all human. Because the truth is, we misstep all the time, but we keep moving forward. When we are vulnerable, when we share stories of past mistakes, it generally gives others permission to be vulnerable too. Your story of vulnerability could be a past workplace mistake and recovery or it can be personal (not too personal) but relatable. Just take pride out of it and make a human connection. By doing so, it will help build team endurance, reduce organizational mediocrity, and develop seasoned leaders who will be more apt to help others when they fall on rough terrain.

Angela Garmon is founder and business strategist at ARG Coaching & Consulting Group. She uses her 20 years of change management experience to help her clients build organizational performance and increase profits by focusing on three key areas: enhancing leadership effectiveness, building team cohesion and improving processes.

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