How to Recover From Failure: Build Failure Resilience

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Our Iceberg Is Melting" by John P. Kotter and Holger Rathgeber. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How did the penguins in Our Iceberg Is Melting recover from failure? What advice do John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber suggest for overcoming setbacks during change?

In their fable about leadership and change, John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber discuss how to handle setbacks during the change process in an organization. They talk about the importance of having failure resilience and of empowering employees to boost their morale.

Continue reading for advice on how to overcome setbacks during change.

Make People Feel Important

In the fable Our Iceberg Is Melting, a penguin named Fred noticed that the iceberg in which the colony lives was riddled with cracks. He first called together a meeting to initialize change, then another penguin named Louis worked to put together a team. The third step was to put together a plan, which was to leave the iceberg. And the fourth step was to convince the rest of the colony that the idea was the best option for them.

In this part of Our Iceberg Is Melting, we’ll see how the team deals with unexpected problems cropping up: everything from penguins losing their enthusiasm for a new lifestyle, to children having nightmares about moving. 

They deal with these problems by making sure that everyone feels useful and important.

How to Show Employees You Value Them

If your employees feel like you value and respect them, they’ll be more likely to continue working for you and giving their best. They may even go out of their way to help solve problems within the organization, as the penguins do for their colony. 

Four ways you can show your employees that you truly value them are:

Personalize your conversations: rather than just giving dry instructions and assessments in your day-to-day talks with your employees, let each one know why you value his or her work in your company. For example, if you have someone who’s exceptionally good at handling difficult clients, make sure to let her know that you’ve noticed that skill and that you appreciate it.

Demonstrate that other people value them, too: Praise from supervisors and managers, no matter how sincere, can come off sounding routine or obligatory. Therefore, make sure to let your team members know when clients or coworkers compliment their work—hearing praise from a different source may have a much greater impact on their morale.

Give them interesting challenges: Harder work might seem more like a punishment than a reward; however, giving an employee a challenging assignment that plays to his strengths shows that you recognize his abilities and trust him to handle more difficult tasks. A good challenge can also help keep an employee engaged, especially if his job is normally tedious grunt work. 

Recognize individual accomplishments: It’s often tempting to give all of your employees the same rewards and incentives so that nobody feels left out. However, doing so tells your best employees that you don’t really value their hard work or their accomplishments. Therefore, it’s helpful to reward those people with something that your other employees don’t get. Even a small gesture, like an extra-long lunch break one day, goes a long way toward letting people know that you appreciate them. 

The Problems

Things had seemed to be going well for the penguins’ vision of a new, nomadic lifestyle, but unexpected problems started cropping up. 

For example, penguins need to eat a lot of fish to survive, and the scouts wouldn’t have time to find food while they were exploring. Also, some of the younger penguins had started having horrible nightmares about leaving the iceberg; Alice eventually learned that the kids’ teacher had been telling them horrific stories about killer whales attacking and eating penguins while they swam. 

These issues and others took a toll on the penguins’ energy and enthusiasm. Many of them stopped attending meetings or working to get the colony ready. The plan, which had been going so well, now seemed doomed to fail. 

One thing that the team didn’t do was develop failure resilience—the skills and confidence to recover from failure, instead of getting frustrated and disheartened by them. As a result, the problems they encountered along the way almost caused their whole plan to break down. 

In Dare to Lead, author and professor Brené Brown offers two suggestions for how you can build failure resilience for yourself and your team:

Recognize your emotions, and question them. Failure is frustrating, and it can cause you to feel like your job is impossible, or that you’re not capable of doing it. It’s important to recognize your feelings for what they are—just feelings, not the truth—and to ask yourself what triggered those feelings. By thinking through your emotions and the underlying problems, you’ll be able to respond effectively, instead of just reacting

Figure out what really happened. It’s tempting to use incomplete information to piece together a story that explains your situation. Such stories are rarely accurate, and tend to jump to worst-case scenarios (for example, you might think that a friend is mad at you, when in reality he’s preoccupied with something unrelated). Therefore, just like you examine and question your emotional responses to failures, examine and question the stories your brain creates about them.

The Solution

As it turned out, the solution to almost all of the team’s problems was simply to make the other penguins feel involved. 

The teacher had been telling her students those horrifying stories because she was afraid that she wouldn’t have a place in the new colony—that she was too old to adapt to a new lifestyle, or that her lessons would be outdated after everything changed. Therefore, the solution was to have Buddy talk to the teacher and reassure her that she’d still be needed in the new colony—if anything, she’d be even more important, as the young penguins tried to keep up with all the changes. 

Once the schoolteacher felt important and empowered, she went on to solve the problem of feeding the scouts by making her students feel empowered. With the teacher’s guidance, the students put together a “Heroes Day celebration” in honor of the scouts, and charged each penguin two fish as the price of admission. Since most of the colony attended the celebration, they ended up with more than enough fish to feed all of the scouts. 

In short, the team made every penguin feel involved and empowered. That alone was enough to solve most of their problems.

In this section, the penguin colony displays what author and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls antifragility: becoming stronger after being damaged. The basis of antifragility is that people and (effective) systems overreact to hardship, and are thus better able to handle future hardships. Perhaps the simplest example is a weightlifter—he damages his muscles by lifting heavy objects, but once he recovers he’ll be able to lift even heavier ones.
 
In a similar fashion, once the colony recovered from its problem with the schoolteacher, it became better than it was before; the newly empowered teacher went on to solve their other major problem of feeding the scouts. 

From this example, we can see how minor setbacks can lead you to major improvements. Therefore, don’t fear such setbacks or failures; instead, welcome them as chances to grow stronger. 
Furthermore, solving these smaller problems gave the penguins some small victories that they could celebrate as they worked toward the main goal of moving the colony to a new iceberg. Those small successes kept them enthusiastic about the larger project.

(Shortform note: According to the Harvard Business Review, making noticeable progress is the single best way to boost employee morale—which, in turn, leads to improved performance. Even small wins can make a huge difference in employee attitude and confidence, so it’s important to recognize and celebrate those wins.)

With the last problems ironed out, the colony was finally ready to realize its new vision. The scouts departed the iceberg to find the penguins a new home. 

Tying It Together

This section shows that getting other people involved can fix several issues at once:

1. They’ll be happy to feel included and important in the project.
2. They can help you to solve minor problems that are getting in the way of the main goal. Those small victories will give them something to celebrate, and help maintain enthusiasm for the main project
How to Recover From Failure: Build Failure Resilience

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of John P. Kotter and Holger Rathgeber's "Our Iceberg Is Melting" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Our Iceberg Is Melting summary:

  • A fable about the necessary steps in making major changes
  • Dr. John Kotter’s eight-step process for change
  • Why your job isn’t done just because you accomplished your goal

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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