Different people view the same events in contrasting ways, and the workplace is no exception. We all handle underperformance in different ways. Often, the differences are between employees and managers. For example, a result that an employee considers satisfactory may seem unacceptable by his or her manager. Many times, however, the differences are between peers. If a project fails, employees often disagree about the reasons.

Office finger pointing

In both cases, the disagreement escalates, and ultimately, the debate about the event becomes an even bigger problem than the original event itself. This illustrates how someone’s response to underperformance can become a major determining factor of career success — and something managers should teach.

To offer guidance, psychologists Ben Dattner and Robert Hogan crunched data obtained from hundreds of thousands of managers across many industries to identify 11 personality types likely to have flawed responses to failure. All fall within three broad categories proposed by the psychologist Saul Rosenzweig in the 1930s: the extrapunitive, who are prone to unfairly blaming others; the intropunitive, who are prone to blaming themselves; and the impunitive, who either deny that failure has occurred or deny their own role in it.


Group 1: Expunitives – Blame others

  • Excitable (“the volatile guardian”): Overreacts to minor mistakes and determines failure prematurely
  • Cautious (the “sensitive retirer”): Expects failure to occur and is too defensive to learn from feedback
  • Skeptical (“the wary watcher”): Believes he or she will be unfairly blamed and sees only criticism in constructive advice
  • Leisurely (“the rationalizing blamer”): Seeks and offers excuses, often blaming whoever assigned the task

Group 2: Intropunitives: Blame themselves

  • Diligent (“the micromanager”): Criticizes himself or herself for even minor errors to that point that a fear of failure leads to “analysis paralysis”
  • Dutiful (“the martyr”): Accepts more blame than deserved in order to preserve relationships (to the point that others typically refrain from criticizing him or her)

Group 3: Impunitives: Deny blame

  • Bold (“the big person on campus”): Avoids blame by sucking up to superiors, and becomes angry or hurt when blamed
  • Mischievous (“the high-wire walker”): Denies a role in failure (or denies that failure has even occurred), often distorting information to do so
  • Reserved (“the indifferent daydreamer”): Seems not to care about failure or blame, ignoring potentially helpful feedback
  • Colorful (“the thespian”): Would rather be blamed than ignored, and expects forgiveness for failures
  • Imaginative (“the assertive daydreamer”): Doesn’t care about present failure, but worries about future failure, and often offers complex explanations for failures

Approximately 70 percent of the population falls within one of these categories, but if you’re one of them, hope is not lost. That’s because regardless of your type, you can change — by taking just a few simple steps.

Be self-aware

First, it’s important to consider whether you would be included in one of the three categories listed above. You might know immediately by reviewing the descriptions of the types. If not, there are several methods to assist in assessing how you handle failure.

You’ve likely heard of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which is an assessment that identifies patterns in how people perceive their environment and make decisions. But other tests may be better indicators for addressing failure.

The Big Five measures openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism as well as numerous subfactors. The Big Five can illuminate how you deal with failure within yourself and with others. “You may find that you score high on the achievement-striving subfactor of the conscientiousness dimension, indicating that you may become easily distressed if you don’t meet ambitious goals,” the psychologists write in a Harvard Business Review article. “Or you might score high on the anger subfactor of neuroticism, suggesting a tendency to disproportionately fault others for minor errors and to exaggerate their gravity.”

It may also help to consider empirical evidence, such as how you’ve handled challenging professional events. What did you do well? What could you have done better? Or you can ask others for their opinions — 360-degree feedback. We’ve seen our executive coaching clients be shocked at what these intensive interviews with colleagues reveal.

For example, one of my CEO coaching clients who is classified as an Excitable type, didn’t think twice about pointing out minor mistakes by his employees in a forceful and public manner. His 360-degree feedback revealed his subordinates thought he was extrapunitive, but he never realized how deeply his criticism was affecting his team. By hearing how his employees perceived him, he was able to realize that he needs to handle small errors differently from major issues and that negative feedback needs to be balanced with positive reinforcement.

Executive coaching can help you identify and address blind spots, self-sabotaging behavior and other issues — even deep psychological issues — in regard to failure. That sort of reflection benefits everyone, especially anyone who leads others.


Be politically aware

Once you’ve identified your type, it’s important to find the best way to approach style of blame within your specific organization, department, and role — what’s called political awareness. Self-awareness is about understanding the messages you send, but political awareness is about discerning what messages are being received.

Note that this is true even if you think you’re one of the 30 percent of people who act appropriately when it comes to blame. That’s because how you perceive yourself may differ from how others perceive you, as the CEO example above illustrates. Moreover, each situation is different, because behavior that was appropriate in the past might be perceived as extrapunitive, impunitive, or intropunitive in a new organization or role.

An intropunitive person could be successful within a small, collaborative business but may have to change strategies if they move to a larger company with more competition. An extrapunitive boss who runs a sales team on her own may be able to get away with just slightly lessening critiques of her colleagues. However, if she later moves to a position of co-leadership with a larger team, she may have to tone down her assessments even further.

For example, consider a newly appointed chief operating officer (COO) who was tasked with leading an investigation into inefficient processes and making recommendations for improvements. When he became overwhelmed with his daily tasks, the COO let his investigation fall behind. At a progress meeting, however, the COO didn’t mention the missed deadlines; he simply reported on the few action items that were completed. That, to the COO, seemed appropriate, as past positions had taught him to hide his shortcomings. In his new role, however, this behavior was viewed as impunitive; leaders were expected to acknowledge failures as a means of bring transparent and demonstrating their commitment to improving. Because he didn’t change his style, the COO was deemed to have performed poorly.

Embrace new strategies

Once you understand what messages you’re sending and what messages others are receiving, you can begin changing your behavior with four simple steps that work, regardless of your type:

Listen and communicate. Most people make one of two key mistakes: failing to gather enough feedback or failing to sufficiently explain their intentions and actions. Do not conclude that you know what others are thinking or assume that they understand your intentions.

Reflect regularly. Different things trigger extrapunitive, impunitive and intropunitive reactions. At the end of a set period — a performance cycle or a project, for example — reflect on how you performed. What happened? How did you react? Be sure to consider how the situation and the people affected your behavior and the outcome.

Reflect regularly

Think before you act. Inevitably, you will fail — and when you do, avoid reacting immediately. Although it might not be possible to make things right in every situation, it’s always a possibility you can worsen things by pushing the panic button. Take a step back to consider how others are interpreting the event and consider different ways you could react.

Learn a lesson. Finally, when failures occur, try to understand why. Maybe it’s your fault, maybe it’s someone else’s. Maybe it’s no one’s. Whichever is the case, considered the lessons learned in the situation so that you can prevent the failure from recurring.

Influence others

After you’ve begun to understand your own tendencies, it’s important to understand the tendencies of others — and encourage them to improve. Having insight into others’ reactions to failure can help you provide appropriate and timely feedback that will in turn increase others’ self-awareness and political awareness, ultimately helping them to change their ways.

In the business world, “failure” has a very negative connotation. But failure exposes you to new opportunities that you otherwise might not encounter, and fear of failure can keep you from taking risks that lead to great success. Consider this: One of the primary differences between successful and unsuccessful people is that successful people fail more often.

Related: Build Resilience

How you interpret failure is driven by your “lens:” how you see and experience the world, and how you react to circumstances and events. The key to shifting your perspective lies in becoming more aware of your personal lens and learning to better manage your energy, thoughts and moods through methods such as coaching. As a result, you will experience more productive mood states, embody more resilience to rebound more quickly from perceived setbacks, improve your performance and increase your capacity for change.

Failure is inevitable in the workplace, but you have the power to choose whether you see it as an obstacle or an opportunity — and whether it will stymie your career or provide valuable insight to propel it forward.

Learn more about Executive Coaching