Growing up in New Zealand, where there are twenty times as many sheep as people, Sarah Robb O’Hagan wanted to be a veterinarian. When poor grades in science crushed that dream, she decided to see the world. She applied to Air New Zealand’s training program, but she failed a required IQ test.
Refusing to take no for an answer, Sarah launched a campaign to get her foot in the door. She started pitching ideas for how she could contribute to the airline’s growth. There were hundreds of applicants for just six spots and Sarah didn’t get one. But Air New Zealand decided to open up a seventh slot just for her. Sarah blossomed at Air New Zealand, and ended up landing a big new job at Virgin Atlantic Airways. Soon she was pitching Richard Branson on a campaign with the Austin Powers movie—they ended up rebranding the airline Virgin Shaglantic.
At 26, Sarah was recruited to run marketing for Virgin’s retail stores. The following year, she got fired.
Broke and unemployed, Sarah thought she’d never find another job. Her green card and visa both expired on the spot, she was in danger of being deported, and she had no savings. Just in the nick of time, Sarah bounced back and found a new position at Atari. And then got fired again. “I was a total train wreck,” she said. “For four long years of my life, I felt like an epic failure.”
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When we get fired or fail at work, we typically have one of two reactions. The first is to blame our boss. He was out to get me. She was threatened by me. The second is to blame ourselves. It was all my fault. I’m incompetent. And I smell bad too.
In some situations, these reactions may be totally appropriate. Yet blaming ourselves often makes us weaker—it leaves our confidence shattered. Blaming others makes us weaker too—it prevents us from learning from our own mistakes.
Most of the time, there’s a third response that’s more accurate and more effective. And it can help us not just bounce back, but forward.
For the past two years, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and I have been studying what it takes to face adversity and build resilience. We just published a book, Option B, on what we learned about finding strength when Option A is off the table.
As we researched and wrote the book, one of the big “aha” moments happened when Sheryl told me about something she learned from a late friend of hers, a therapist. I always thought there were two parties in every relationship. Sheryl said there are three: you, the other person, and the relationship itself.
Although the therapist was talking about romantic relationships, Sheryl found the same to be true for work relationships. She taught me that the key conversation is not “who’s at fault?” but “how can we work better together?”
Most of the time, when someone fails, it’s not because there’s a bad apple spoiling the barrel. It’s because the barrel is a bad relationship.
In other words: It’s not me. It’s not you. It’s us.
Sure enough, there’s some new evidence to back this up. When people get negative feedback at work, when they attribute it to the relationship rather than just to the individuals involved, they don’t wallow in self-pity or lash out in anger. They becomemotivated to improve. They work on their relationships.
That doesn’t mean shirking responsibility or failing to hold others accountable. It means realizing that in many of our struggles, the biggest problem lies not in individuals but in relationships.
When Sarah Robb O’Hagan got fired the first time, she protected her ego by blaming the company. Yet as she reflected on her failure, a new perspective crept in. “My boss and his boss had never fully bought into all I was doing,” she wrote recently in Extreme You. “I needed to be fired.”
After the second firing, Sarah blamed herself. “It was my fault that I didn’t understand video games. It was my fault that I didn’t take the time to learn about them.” Yet when she thought about her success elsewhere, she had another realization: Atari had been a terrible fit for her. She loved sports and adventure, not video games. No wonder she struggled to understand them.
Sarah readjusted her approach. She saw that her failure wasn’t personal; it was relational. If she found a job where she connected with the product and mission, she could be effective. She started to regain her confidence. “I’d had flickers of success before, so why couldn’t I have them again?” she said. “I decided to get my mojo back.” She applied for a position at Nike. To prove that she was an athlete, she started setting exercise goals and reaching them.
That was the beginning of her career in fitness. Sarah went on to lead the successful turnaround and rejuvenation of Gatorade as its global president. Then she was recruited to lead Equinox, and now she’s the CEO of the indoor cycling company Flywheel.
It helps to remember that in most failures, relationships are a major factor. We just have to make sure we don’t pull the wool over our own eyes.