Nobody wants to fail

// leadership

Nobody wakes up in the morning saying, “I’m gonna suck at my job today”. Nobody has an ambition that goes, “I want to be known for my incompetence”. Well, unless they’re trying to get fired for some reason, but that’s a whole other thing.

You see, most of us can’t help but judge. Humans—the social creatures that we are—crave validation. We want to be valued or esteemed by people around us. And because we care quite a bit about what others think of ourselves, we tend to apply the same level of assessment towards them.

Making judgments is how we cope in this world. The problem is that we judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their behaviour1. When a new coworker shows up to a meeting late, we can easily chalk it up to some sort of exigency for the first time. But when it happens repeatedly, we begin to form some premature assessments like clockwork. “He’s lazy.”. “He doesn’t respect people’s time.”. “I wonder if he’s serious about his work.”.

Creativity killer

Assessments like these kill off possibilities in our heads. They limit our imaginations and reduce our openness to new information. In short, we become less creative, which impairs our problem-solving abilities.

When we’re less creative—which I like to think of as divergent thinking and having the ability to make free associations—we fall right into an analytical mode. We quickly size up available tools and grab hold of whatever’s familiar to plug the hole because we’re compelled to fix things. Oh, John’s always late? Put him on a PIP. Dock his pay. Transfer him out. Or maybe he’s stressed out, let’s reduce his workload. This is how we end up with sub-optimal interventions. We deny ourselves from expanding our range of options before diving into one.

Empathy… wait, not this again

Leaders are often encouraged to “have empathy”, and learn how to deeply connect with and understand people. We’re told that the ability to empathise—understand a person’s experience, perspective and feelings—is an essential leadership skill that makes you more effective and competent. In summary, it makes you more sensitive to additional data points that help you make better decisions. Great, it sounds cool, I can get behind that. But how do I start?

A quick hack

If you’ve not already realised, the quick hack I’d like to share with you is contained right in the title of this article. Quite literally, I tell myself that “Nobody wants to fail”. That’s it, it’s that simple.

It’s not quite the same as taking a charitable view or applying the golden rule. For me, this phrase does two things:

  • Typically, whoever’s doing something unpleasant to you, if given a choice, on a good day, would rather not have to do that
  • Quite often, this somebody is trying to succeed at something else outside of our purview

With regards to the first point, it helps me to wear someone’s shoes with a slightly more objective perspective. A tardy coworker probably wouldn’t enjoy such a reputation. That rude asshole probably prefers not to have lost his temper in a meeting. From here, it’s really easy for me to slip into asking “why?”, which is all I need to start questioning, understanding, and getting more data points.


I’ve had to caveat some of my points with shaky language like, “typically” or “quite often”. I can’t deny the fact that there are people who are angry at this world and can’t wait to watch it burn. I’m also not condoning abusive language or actions in the workplace or at home. By all means, demand apologies and seek justice. But you can do all that while still keeping “nobody wants to fail” at the back of your mind. In fact, it helps you see clearer and faster, and if necessary, to quickly get out of the way of a toxic or destructive person’s warpath.

Which is still a win in my book.

  1. This quote is often attributed to Steven M.R. Covey. ↩︎