It’s normal to feel like quitting or that you have failed. Everyone feels like that sometimes. Whether it pertains to large or small goals or experiences in life, we inevitably fail at some of them. However, we can either accept failure as a necessary step towards success or let failures dictate our futures. Failure is not the same thing as defeat unless we give up. 

Successes and Failures Are Usually Grey Area

We rarely have total successes or failures in life--most of our endeavours are probably somewhere in the middle, leaning more towards failure or more towards success. Why do we so often see failure as such an absolute? Instead, we should think about failure as a step in the process and learn all we can from it. In many ways, a failure that eventually leads us to success was probably not a total failure in the first place. 

The Courage to Admit Failure Can Be Hard to Find

It takes courage to admit when something you worked on doesn’t work out. All the people around you, those who you collaborate and work with, are watching you as the leader. When you accept a failure graciously and take it as an opportunity for growth, they are watching. If you instead throw a fit and stomp about and proclaim how unfair everything is, they are also watching.

When you hold a position of leadership, you have power. It doesn’t matter if you lead a company with thousands of employees or work in a small organisation. You can use this power to further your own growth (and that of others), or you can cling to each failure instead of moving on. 

When we succeed or win at something, the brain releases dopamine. Eventually, if we continue to thrive, structures in the brain change to make us more competent and confident. Dubbed the ‘winner effect’ by biologists, most animals exhibit this behaviour. However, when we lose, we tend to do worse at a later time and are thrown off by our past mistakes. 

In a study using monkeys, animals who made mistakes (even after eventually completing the task) were more likely to make mistakes later compared to the animals who didn’t make mistakes initially.[1] Having the courage to continue, even when we may be in a cycle of failure for some time, is one key feature of a neuroleader. Animals have learned it is worth trying again, so we can, also.

Neurobiology of Coaching, Wellbeing & Brain-Friendly Practices

Various Parts of the Brain Are Activated When We Experience Failure

Failure activates several parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the amygdala.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain, is responsible for executive functions such as planning, working memory, and decision-making. When we experience failure, this brain area is activated as we try to process and make sense of our failure. 

According to studies on the effects of stress on cognition during WWII, pilots who were incredibly skilled during peacetime experienced higher rates of crashes due to mental errors. Research showed that stress levels negatively altered performance when tasks required complex, agile thinking. When people felt less in control, these adverse effects were compounded. [2]

When we fail, the prefrontal cortex processes a great deal of information to try to understand why we failed and what we should do next. Unfortunately, the amount of stress we feel increases, which then causes us to be uncertain and may stall or completely stop our progress.

The Anterior Cingulate Cortex

This structure is located in the middle of the brain and is involved with emotion regulation and conflict monitoring. Activation occurs when we experience failure-related emotions, like frustration, embarrassment or disappointment. 

Several studies have examined positive and negative feedback during learning tasks. We constantly process success or failure signals, and success is correlated with decreased activation in the anterior cingulate cortex. In other words, our brains are susceptible to success and failure signalling, and the brain learns to reduce activation in certain areas when things are going well.[3]

This means we have an opportunity to not just learn from the negative emotions but to support the successes and acknowledge positive changes are occurring. We need leaders who take the time to celebrate successes, even small ones, to promote and encourage courageous behaviour in the workplace.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is located deep within the brain and plays a vital role in processing emotions, especially those associated with ‘fight or flight’. Fear and anxiety can trigger the activation of the amygdala. The amygdala kicks in when we sense a threat (whether it is real or imagined).

In a study of an individual with lesions in the amygdala, researchers found the patient experienced no fear when exposed to a variety of things most people find scary. This patient had no response to spiders and snakes, haunted houses or horror movies. However, the patient still experienced other emotions.[4]

In people with typical brain function and structure, the amygdala can produce strong results in the face of failure. We feel the fear of something bad happening as a result of that failure. We typically either fight, meaning we lash out to protect ourselves, or freeze and become unable to proceed. 

Learning the Value of Failure

When we fail, our brains undergo a complicated process to analyse the situation, regulate our emotions and then determine what we should do next. How we cope with failure depends on many factors, including mindset, past experiences and how supportive people are around us.

We must recognise the value of failure and what an incredible learning experience it can be. Learning to let go of the fear of success means we can continuously try new things and think outside of the box.

When Our Failures Seem to Be Broadcast to All

No matter our job or role in life, we may have moments where we feel as if all of our decisions (good or bad) are on public display. When we have to make difficult decisions, we may face the consequences of those choices. We often forget that many do not see our hundreds of successes, but it seems like everyone sees our failures.

Collaboration Gives Us the Courage to Fail  

When we have strong collaboration between ourselves and those around us, they don’t just see the failures. They see all the successes and good things we do in day-to-day work and life. We can’t let ourselves dwell on the negatives but focus on what we can learn and then move on. 

Collaboration can improve failure in several ways, including:

  • Shared ownership. When part of a team, we all sink or swim together. Everyone involved in the project or task is invested and motivated to ensure success. When failure happens (which it inevitably will), one person does not fail alone; instead, the whole team has another opportunity to try again.
  • Everyone learns from their mistakes. We want to create a culture of continuous improvement, so when we fail, we should take the time to examine what went wrong and where changes can be made. By working together, we all learn from our mistakes and can try to prevent similar mishaps in the future.
  • Increased accountability. When we work alone, there is often a tremendous burden on our shoulders. However, when we work together, we support an entire team. We can hold each other accountable for our actions, which may prevent failures caused by individuals due to carelessness or oversight. When we work as a team, we can harness the best of each team member to produce the best results.
  • Diverse perspectives. Collaboration brings together people with diverse backgrounds, educations and cultures. These different perspectives can help identify blind spots and potential problems. Looking at things from a different angle often means we see issues before they lead to failures. 
  • Sharing of skills and knowledge. Collaboration means we pool our collective talents, giving the group a more comprehensive range of resources than any individual member would possess. By combining strengths, teams may be better equipped to avoid failure in the first place.

Realising that more brains are smarter than one is important to become a brain-friendly leader. We should use all available resources instead of trying to accomplish everything alone. It takes courage to lean on your team and give them the autonomy to fulfil a company vision, but if we stifle this creativity, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Brain-Friendly Leadership Requires Courage

While the idea of having our failures broadcast to the world is often cringe-worthy, we should instead see the opportunities we have to learn and improve. Failure and defeat are not the same things. 

Admitting defeat means the process stops. We throw in the towel, and the project is over. Failure means acknowledging something that went wrong and looking again to see what we can learn from and improve. Then, we try to avoid making those same mistakes again. 

If this is easier said than done to you, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate your leadership methods. Seeing the world differently and understanding how leadership is most effective is possible. Instead of letting the word failure bring us down, we should learn to articulate a new opportunity for learning and growth.

Do you accept failure as a necessary step towards success?

Citations:

  1. Beaton C. This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Fail. Psychology Today, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-gen-y-guide/201705/is-what-happens-your-brain-when-you-fail.
  2. Arnsten AFT. Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nat Rev Neurosci 2009; 10: 410–422.
  3. Radua J, Stoica T, Scheinost D, et al. Neural Correlates of Success and Failure Signals During Neurofeedback Learning. Neuroscience 2018; 378: 11–21.
  4. Feinstein JS, Adolphs R, Damasio A, et al. The human amygdala and the induction and experience of fear. Curr Biol 2011; 21: 34–38.
Originally posted on: 5 April 2023
Last updated on: 12 April 2024

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Silvia Damiano

Silvia Damiano

Founder & CEO
About my Brain Institute

Scientist, educator, author, speaker, coach, award-winning leadership specialist, filmmaker and creator of the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology.

Silvia's scientific background and curiosity about the human brain led her to a decade long journey of research into optimal brain functioning and the application of neuroscience in leadership and daily life. Her past and current roles have uniquely prepared her for the current undertaking, that of leadership activist & change agent.

Silvia Damiano founded The About my Brain Institute in 2009, with the purpose of democratising leadership & neuroscience. She has a passionately held belief, that leaders in our 21st century global economy and their organisations must radically change long-held ideas of what constitutes effective leadership

In her ground-breaking books ‘Leadership is Upside Down’, ‘Brain-Friendly Leadership’ and the 2018 documentary ‘Make Me A Leader’, Silvia provides both compelling evidence and explores the importance of leadership in our personal and professional lives and what it takes to develop the human behind the leader.

Silvia has worked in different countries, across many industries, helping teams and organisations improve business performance. Silvia’s clients have described her as a passionate, dynamic, a highly experienced speaker and master facilitator on the topics of Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Change, Neuroleadership & Engagement.

Silvia is passionate about leaving a legacy of well-rounded leaders who can act and decide in a way that better serves humanity. Her clients include Microsoft, Australian Stock Exchange, NSW Government, VISA, Fuji Xerox and Manpower amongst many other global companies.

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