Different people see the same events in different ways, and the workplace is no exception. We all handle underperformance in different ways. Often, the differences are between employees and managers: An outcome that an employee considers satisfactory, for example, may seem unacceptable by his or her manager. Many times, however, the differences are between peers: When 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 more problematic than the original event. As a result, how people respond to underperformance is a major determinant 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 dysfunctional reactions 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: Extrapunitives

Group 2: Intropunitives

Group 3: Impunitives

Blame others

Blame themselves

Deny blame

  • 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
  • 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)


  • 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 determine whether you fall into one of the three categories Dattner and Hogan identified. You might know immediately by reviewing the descriptions of the types above. If not, there are several methods of assessing how you handle failure.

Although the Myers Briggs Type Indicator is probably the best known, other tests have more empirical support. One is the Big Five, which measures openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism as well as numerous subfactors. The Big Five can illuminate how you address failure in yourself and 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 surprised at what they discover. For example, one CEO I worked with, an Excitable type, saw no problem with his habit of forcefully and publicly pointing out subordinates’ minor errors. During an executive coaching session, he learned that his employees perceived him as extrapunitive. He realized that they had a more hierarchical worldview than he did and that he had underestimated how criticism from him — the boss — might affect them. He also came to accept that small mistakes should be treated differently from big ones, and that feedback on them should be balanced with encouragement.

Executive coaching can help you identify and address blind spots, self-sabotaging behavior and other issues — even deep psychological issues — in regard to failure. Everyone can undertake and benefit from this sort of reflection.


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. “Whereas self-awareness helps you understand what messages you’re sending, political awareness helps you understand what messages others are receiving,” Dattner and Hogan write. “It requires that you know how your organization defines, explains, assigns responsibility for, and attempts to remedy failure.”

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 media 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 might be effective at a small, highly collegial company but have to change his ways at a larger, more competitive one, where rivals might take advantage,” write Dattner and Hogan. “An extrapunitive boss who only slightly softened her criticisms when independently running a sales department might have to tone them down further when co-leading a cross-divisional team.”

For example, consider a newly appointed chief operating officer (COO) who was asked to lead a task force to identify inefficient processes and make recommendations for improvements. Busy with his day-to-day work, the COO let his task force fall behind. At a meeting to discuss his progress, however, the COO didn’t mention the missed deadlines; he simply described his task force’s activities. 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 showing 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. Never assume that you know what others are thinking or that they understand where you are coming from.

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 respond? 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. It’s not always possible to right the wrong, but it’s almost always possible to make things worse by overreacting in a highly charged situation. Take the time to consider several possible interpretations of the event and to imagine various ways you might respond.

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, create and test hypotheses about why the failure happened to prevent recurrence.

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



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