Responding to Setbacks

At some point in your career, you will encounter a setback. It’s inevitable. But how you handle that setback is what matters.

If you’re in a leadership position, the way you respond to a setback is especially important. Your response sets off a chain reaction by your team members. If you’re upset by a negative outcome, they’ll be upset. If you shrug it off, they’ll likely shrug it off. By modeling the appropriate response, you encourage your team members to be more resilient when setbacks occur on the job.

At ProEdit, we’ve had our fair share of setbacks. And because of the response from leadership, we have learned from our experiences and become stronger. I wouldn’t say that I’m grateful for this “hard knocks” schooling, but I recognize its value.

From our experience, I have developed a three-day process for responding to setbacks. I call it “Reflect, Review, and Replace.”

Day One: Reflect

Imagine you’ve just lost a major client. For months you’ve poured your life into the engagement. You counted on the revenue to make your team’s sales goal for the year. And now, there’s little to show for it. As a result, you feel defeated. You know you need to get back to work and get your team selling, but this experience has left you unmotivated.

First, admit to yourself that you’ve actually experienced a loss. The natural response to a loss is the need to grieve. Give yourself a full day to go through the five steps (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). I recommend going somewhere quiet, preferably alone, to avoid lashing out in anger at an unsuspecting colleague. Allow yourself time to reflect on what just happened, and tell yourself that it’s okay to feel miserable. And acknowledge that your team may be feeling this loss, too. They will be looking to you to know how to appropriately respond.

During this time, expect that well-meaning people who are closest to you will try to make you feel better by saying things like, “It all happened for a reason,” and “You did everything you could do given the circumstances.” Accept their kind words, but give yourself time to reflect on the setback. I think you actually need to feel miserable for some period of time in order to move through the five steps quickly. On the other hand, you don’t want to dwell on failure for too long. I limit my “Reflect” time to 24 hours, but your individual mileage may vary.

Day Two: Review

Failure is an essential component of success. By learning what not to do, you are poised to channel that failure into success.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
– Thomas Edison

On the second day, it’s time to make a list of lessons learned from the setback. Get a notebook and pencil, and label two columns: “What we learned” and “What we’ll do differently next time.” Meet with your team members individually so they can release any frustrations they may have with themselves or with other team members. Let them know that this is their opportunity to speak freely and say whatever needs to be said without fear of retribution, but that once the meeting is over it’s time to move on.

Next, solicit their opinions by asking open-ended questions like, “If you had it to do over again, is there anything you would’ve done differently?” Take copious notes and listen more than you speak. Above all, avoid the temptation to cast blame. Instead, take responsibility for what went wrong. That’s what you would want them to do, so model that behavior. That’s leadership.

After you meet with each of the team members, review your notes in private and create a list of lessons learned to file in a process improvements folder for later reference.

Day Three: Replace

When day three arrives, replace your negative thoughts, fears, and concerns with a positive outlook. Dwelling on failure will only attract more failure.

“You are now, and you do become, what you think about.”
– Earl Nightingale

Come up with a short-term, easily attainable goal for your team to work on. This should be something that can be accomplished in about a week. The goal is for your team to score a quick victory and to get them working together again on a success. While they are working on this project, look for evidence of teamwork and then praise them profusely. As Ken Blanchard said, “Catch them doing something right.”

Once the team accomplishes that short-term goal, give them a slightly harder one. Continue this process until you notice that nobody is talking about the setback anymore. When that happens, you know the team’s emotional wounds have been healed and the team has been refocused on winning.

The way you respond to setbacks speaks volumes about you as a leader. Reflect, Review, and Replace. Then the only thing left for you to say is, “What’s next?”

Meet Doug Davis

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