How to Manage Failure

Raymond Poulidor was a perpetual loser. Arguably one of the most talented cyclists of all time, he never quite made it to the top. As one expert described, “Poulidor’s list of wins is impressive but his list of losses is astonishing.” In fact, “he holds the record for the most podium finishes in the Tour de France yet he never wore the yellow jersey, not for one day.” This pattern earned him the nickname “The Eternal Second.”

Fans around the world adored Poulidor and his misses. While continuing to do his best during races, he used his failures to curate a carefree personal brand, and his appearances in ads and at promotional events pushed his earnings above that of many of his prizewinning rivals. Today, he is as well remembered in cycling communities as are the other greats of his era. Despite his many losses, Poulidor was a success.

In the business world, we tend to glorify winners. We are always pushing to do better, do more. In truth, most of us can’t be winners. Most of us can’t always be second or third place, either. And all of us, winners or not, fail. The difference between the real failures and the Poulidors is their response to loss. Giving up or refusing to change is not an option; neither is ignoring the issue. Poulidors face their problems head on and make the best of it.

It’s an approach that doesn’t always come naturally. In the small or mid-sized contact center, errors are more glaring, and they can have a larger impact on operations than in larger organizations . When confronted with employee failure, the immediate impulse of many contact center managers is to yell or penalize the offenders, in an attempt to reach a speedy resolution. Punishment, however, is often ineffective.

“The most significant problem with a traditional punitive approach is that it leaves the worker freed of responsibility for future good performance,” explains an article in the Harvard Business Review. “To the employee, the slate is now clean.”

Negativity also breeds resentment between employees and management, and frustration can disrupt productivity and bleed into customer interactions. In a smaller, close-knit contact center, distrust spreads quickly. A workplace culture based on anger is hard to reverse – all the more reason to handle failure responsibly.

Instead of spreading blame or punishment, recognize that low points are inevitable. Use failure as an opportunity to educate your team and also inform your own management methods. When there are fewer workers, individual failures can have an outsized effect on overall performance, so it’s easy to react in an oversized way too. Be fair, and consider the context: Was this a one-time incident, or a larger trend? Was the problem an honest mistake, or the result of sloppiness? Is the employee new or working outside his or her usual skillset? Can the employee improve?

Workforce management analytics can help managers pinpoint specific challenges and identify precisely how and when mistakes are being made. As technology accelerates, your ability to guide and inform your team expands. Employees benefit from technology, too. New tools allow them to self-manage and self-correct before failures or weaknesses become crises. Understanding a mistake is the first step towards fixing it, and easy-to-use, integrated dashboards can alert workers and their supervisors when adherence is low or other KPIs are weak. These metrics can guide goalsetting and direct and focus coaching.

Remember also that failure is necessary for innovation. Even employees with scripts need to develop, improve and grow, and they will fall short sometimes. The experience can teach them what does and does not work, and how they can use that information. In responding to failure, employees should focus on the process, not the outcome. According to one expert, “these people… tend to remain motivated in the face of challenging work and are more likely to persevere on future tasks.”

As a manager, your response to failure and loss should model what you want from your employees. In the small or medium contact center, where everyone knows everyone else, it’s easy for hierarchies and accountability to be informal. As tempting as it may be to pass the buck, your employees’ performance is your responsibility. If their KPIs are low, so are yours. Like any member of the team, you need to own up to and learn from this mistake. Consider whether trends of inefficiency require additional training or remediation, either for a particular worker or a group. Is it possible that standards, processes or metrics need to be reconsidered or replaced? Or is your coaching falling short? Be constructive, and explore creative ways to transform your failures, just as Poulidor did.

Your employees will never escape failure, and neither will you. Instead of responding with anger or simply throwing in the towel, use these opportunities to learn and teach. By keeping a cool head – and encouraging your employees to do the same – you can use failures to guide you towards success.


Paul Chance is a senior product marketing manager for NICE EVOLVE WFM, the leading software ​solution used by small and mid-sized contact centers to plan and manage the workforce anywhere from the cloud. For more information, visit