This is not a party political piece. I am writing, as ever, about leadership since there are important leadership lessons here. They apply equally well to organisations, sports teams, political parties and others. In the face of failure, when the circumstances should have led to success, the critical next step is to learn but how is learning best done in such circumstances? There are a number of principles that need to be understood.
- First, deal with the feelings
The analysis of the reasons for the failure needs to be dispassionate. Right now, feelings are running high. Whether of anger and frustration or sadness and despondency, emotions are keenly felt and inevitable. They cannot be denied but nor can they be indulged, since they will inevitably cloud judgment and hinder the careful, detailed diagnoses of the causes of the failure to which they are responding. There needs to be an opportunity to feel and express all feelings but that time needs to be limited and everyone involved needs to embrace disciplined self-control as soon as possible.
- Second, abandon blame
Blame is counterproductive since it provokes defensiveness. Interpersonally, defensiveness causes counter-attack and escalation. It destroys co-operation. Psychologically, ego defence seeks external attribution of failure and cannot admit error. Blame is the enemy of insight.
- Third, embrace evidence
There are already post-election polls seeking the reasons behind votes cast. These are to be prized if they are collected using sound samples and by disinterested organisations. While it is tempting to share influential anecdotes of stories told on the campaign trail, these doorstep insights are at best unrepresentative and, at worst, biased. The best evidence to understand the distribution of views is quantitative, objective, randomly sampled and large scale. For greater insight, qualitative probing in focus-groups and interviews can help but these insights have to be placed into the framework of the quantitative analysis.
- Fourth, no sacred cows
Loyalty puts leaders off-limits; principles are blind to unacceptable policies; empathy shields hard-workers from critical performance evaluation. In the absence of vituperation, all aspects of performance have to be considered. Failure usually has multiple causes and each has to be embraced and understood. It is entirely possible that errors were made in policy, leadership, communication, execution and elsewhere. Identify and face them all in the spirit of learning, especially when a cause is identified that could have been different at the time and show the connections between causes.
- Finally, focus on implications
Remember that the aim of all this analysis is to learn and avoid failure next time around. Implications derive from the analyses conducted. It is tempting but erroneous to grasp the first suggestions about how the battle could have been won. It is the leadership equivalent of eating sweets: briefly comforting and energising but no substitute for proper nourishment. The real implications emerge after detailed, painstaking and honest appraisal followed by a little time to reflect.
By Dr David Pendleton, Professor in Leadership, Henley Business School