Are You A Failure?


September 9, 2010 woke up early this morning, again, and started flipping through channels.  I somehow landed on ‘Little People, Big World’.  I was only half watching it when I noticed the mom having an argument with her teenage son.  For some reason it seems like my attention is drawn to moms who argue with their kids lately.  At any rate, I watched the interaction.  The crux of the argument was that the son had lost his backpack and with it all his notebooks, pencils, etc.  Mom told him it was his responsibility to find the backpack and that it wasn’t her problem  because she had done her part by buying his supplies in the first place.  The son was upset and basically shut down because he had no idea how to handle the situation.  As a parent, I understand her frustration.  But, as an outside observer, I also thought that her expectations of her child to be able to figure out how to solve this problem on his own was unrealistic for his age.

I see this all the time.  It’s not just people on TV that aren’t measuring up to the expectations of those around them.  It’s in our workplace, it’s in our communities, and in our own homes.  That begs the question:

Are the expectations too high, or are we really failures?

It seems like a simple observation, but if we’re constantly expecting more from ourselves and the people around us than we, or they, can possibly deliver, is that a good thing?  Now, I’m not saying we need to throw out goals, or even stretch goals.  What I am asking though is why is it that no matter where you work, there never seems to be enough staff for the workload?  Why is it that managers say they do not have staff that can meet all the deadlines and do a great job every time?  It’s the same no matter who I talk to or what organization they work for.

It may be simple to figure out that we are setting everyone up for failure.  What is challenging to figure out is how to change that.  How can you as the manager set realistic goals and expectations when you probably report to someone who has unrealistic expectations of you?

How do we break this cycle?  Can we?  Tell me what you think in the comments.


  • Set up for failure can be an unintended consequence of striving for continually increasing achievements and ever loftier goals. I mean, how do you top a gold medal? Nobody has come out with the platinum or diamond medal (yet). Oh, I forgot- titanium was fashionable as a metal.

    For me, failure means a total abandonment of an effort. Falling short of the projected goal is not failure if you try and try again. You have only failed if you quit. I guess I say this as I have tried to eliminate the word “failure” from my lexicon.

  • I’ve commented a few times recently but they don’t show up – either I have a technical problem or you don’t like my comments. 😉

    I think society has very particular notions about sucess and it’s hard to ignore them and chart your own path. But there’s a difference between feeling like a failure in general and feeling like a failure because you made this or that mistake. Tomorrow’s always a new day.

  • I think there are two issues you’ve touched on.

    As to the achievement part, people tend to default to “can’t be done!” without thinking if it sounds hard. Then we we accomplish our task, and look like heroes in the process. (No one asks what work didn’t get done, of course, but if it was really important, we would have noticed, right?)

    The other issue I see is about the kid shutting down. It’s not about unrealistic goals in this case as much as giving an objective without making sure the other person has the skills to reach it. When I work with teams that are made of members from multiple locations or businesses, I remind them that we are not representing those businesses, but we come with their needs in mind. When we hit an obstacle, we move from “can’t be done” to “how do we do this.” Small mindshift, to be sure, but major differences in return.

    It’s not about bad goals, it’s about good coaching to reach the tough goals. Which are the only ones worth having, of course.

  • I think in the organizational context, priority setting can be a problem. There is often too much work, projects, problems than can be successfully managed at any point in time, but instead of really only worrying about critical, or truly meaningful objectives, all the ‘open’ items pile on each other to create an insurmountable hill.

    I think personally, more time spent on ‘is what I am doing right now really important’ can help to break the cycle of (at least perception of) failure.

  • Here is where a crystal ball comes in handy . . .hey, where did mine go? I think Steve hit the nail right on the head when he said focusing on what’s important helps to keep everyone on track.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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