Business management

Women in business: coping with failure

Embracing failure can be good for business, and it can often be a better teacher than success.

According to business and occupational psychologist Martin Hancock, women can take failure particularly hard because they have a tendency to judge themselves more harshly than their male counterparts.

It’s a behaviour that often stems from how they’re treated as youngsters by parents and teachers, he believes. “Girls often develop a better degree of self-control than boys at an early age, which is praised by telling them they are ‘good’, ‘smart’ or ‘clever’,” says Hancock. “Praising in such absolute terms implies to young girls that these traits are qualities they either possess or they don’t.

“At the same age, boys are more likely being told to behave or to put more effort in, instilling the belief that poor performances can be overcome by effort.” The result, Hancock says, is that when women fail they may internalise that failure and tell themselves they’re simply not being good enough. Men, meanwhile, are more likely to attribute failure to some external cause and move on.

Reframing business failure

Five years ago, Lulu Minns gave up a career as a criminal defence lawyer to launch a dating business. It folded within a year, and she attributes its failure to a lack of marketing expertise and incompatibility with her business partner.

She says: “We were both exiting the legal profession so there was a lot of financial stress and identity loss. I’d never really ‘failed’ at anything before, but here I was in my 30s, with a business I’d given up on and having not achieved partnership at my law firm before I left.”

Although she was initially reluctant to talk about it at the time, Minns now sees failure as an opportunity to start again more intelligently. She says: “I had to work at reframing failure: coming from a corporate job it was deemed bad in my book. I’ve learned from it and that has set me on a better path. If I’m not failing, I’m not trying hard enough.”

Minns now helps other women who want to leave corporate jobs and start their own businesses, via a programme of retreats, coaching, and her podcast She Rebel Radio. Her experience has taught her that the stigma around failure is gradually becoming less evident as more women become entrepreneurs.

“We need more inspiration from UK businesses, especially female role models, as that’s something we can identify with,” she says.

Being open about your mistakes

If it is true that women tend to be harder on themselves over failure, one positive side effect of this is they often feel more inclined than men to talk about it. “Women can be better at sharing what went wrong and diagnosing their challenges than men,” says Steven Hess, founder and CEO of Whitecap Consulting. “An openness and willingness to trust and collaborate create a more nurturing environment.”

I kept telling myself that if I closed my business, it would mean that I had failed, and I couldn't fail. I wasn't a failure, it was just an exhausting time

Rebecca Lockwood, founder, Female Entrepreneur’s Network

Rebecca Lockwood had enjoyed a successful career in sales before launching her shopping party business Recoco Woman, aged just 22. Although initially successful, the business was dogged by cash-flow problems. Lockwood tried to ease these by negotiating a deal with a supplier, which ultimately fell through. Around this time she’d also had her first baby and was suffering from severe postnatal depression. In 2016, she made the difficult decision to close the business down.

“I kept telling myself that if I closed my business, it would mean that I had failed, and I couldn't fail. I wasn’t a failure, it was just an exhausting time.”

Lessons learned from the experience helped her launch her latest venture, a neurolinguistic programming training business. “I realised that I had closed my first business due to a lack of belief in myself and my abilities,” says Lockwood, who is also the founder of the Female Entrepreneur’s Network. “I vowed to support as many other women as possible to help them avoid the same mistakes I made when it came to mindset and limiting beliefs.”

The gender factor

Before launching her current business, Obelisk Support, which outsources legal work, Dana Denis-Smith had set up an advisory firm called Marker Global. Three years later, realising it couldn’t scale much beyond her earning potential, she closed it down.

“Most of my strategic business deals had better outcomes when I went to meetings with men, be them our non-executive directors, or the finance director,” says Denis-Smith. “Our ambition is viewed differently even when we are clear we are in business to scale.”

Lockwood, meanwhile, has never felt judged any differently from men and insists that the way people cope with failure has more to do with individual personality traits than gender.

She says: “I’ve seen men and women who’ve failed give up and stop trying and those with the grit and determination to never give up under any circumstances. I’ve always continued on regardless of a past lack of belief in myself and in my abilities because I’ve uncovered my weaknesses and worked on them. I see all successful people as having these traits.”

Four tips for handling failure

  1. Being mentally prepared for business failure is key. Expectations that everything will go according to plan can make the harder moments more difficult than you had anticipated.
  2. You need to move on, but you also need to understand why you failed. This means asking yourself some hard questions and dealing with harder answers, but it will help you to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
  3. Seek support by finding or building a group of fellow entrepreneurs with whom you can share experiences, both good and bad, in a safe and supportive environment that facilitates learning and promotes reflection.
  4. Remember you aren’t alone. In failing you’ve actually joined a club that no one chooses to be in, but whose membership is filled with some of the business world’s most successful entrepreneurs.

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

scroll to top