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How to Overcome a Setback at Work


I know it’s painful, but take a minute to consider the most frustrating setback you’ve ever had at work. If you’re like me, you’ve got plenty to choose from. Pick the most gnarly, frustrating one.

Chances are you didn’t “deserve” this thing that happened to you. Tides shifted that you couldn’t have predicted or controlled, but there you were. Frustrated. Sad. Ticked off. Worried. And feeling stuck.

To be perfectly honest, we’re in the midst of a pretty frustrating setback ourselves. In business, setbacks can be contagious.

So I’m writing this for both of us.

Okay, got that “worst of” scene firmly in your mind?

Now let me ask you this question: “And then what happened?”

Nine times out of ten, when I ask this question, the answer goes something like this.

“Well when X happened, I felt like it was the end of the world, but it turns out that closed door led me to what I’m doing today, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

“Losing that job was a blessing in disguise.”

“Losing that contract made us take a really hard look at our business model. We needed to diversify. After that wake-up call our business has quadrupled.”

Sound familiar?

5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Facing a Frustrating Setback at Work

The next time an unexpected, frustrating setback happens to you or your team, ask yourself these questions. If you’re a leader with a team full of frustrated eyes looking at you, these questions work great to guide others through as well.

1. What am I feeling?

If you’re anything like me it’s really, really tempting to skip past this phase. After all, leaders are strong. Great entrepreneurs are resilient. Setbacks are par for the course. Suck it up buttercup.

But here’s the deal. You are feeling something, and pretending you’re above all that is BS. You might be fooling everyone else, but deep down you know the truth.

It’s okay to not be okay for a bit.

Name the feeling. Are you frustrated? Resentful? Exhausted? Angry? Sad? Confused? Worried?

The other day David and I were sitting on a Southwest flight and the guys behind us were talking. “I worked for this boss who demanded that every morning when he asked how we were we had to reply ‘excellent.’” Apparently, that proved they had a good attitude and were ready for a strong sales day.

For real?

Related: Frustrated or Focused: 6 Tips for Managing Emotions

I’ve never seen the “suck it up” strategy work for motivated teams when something real is going on.  I love this New York Times article on the value of naming your emotions.

So what’s the value of getting people to express what they’re actually feeling, rather than keeping things relentlessly light and bland? The answer is that naming our emotions tends to diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create. The psychologist Dan Siegel refers to this practice as “name it to tame it.”

2. How have I overcome setbacks before?

As we share in our book Winning Well, the best way to regain confidence is to recall other times you overcame seemingly insurmountable setbacks.

3. What have I learned?

If things are totally outside of your control, the real truth may be “nothing.” But there’s usually something to be gained.  As I said in one of my earliest blog posts:

Resiliency is hardly ever about “returning to the original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched.” Chances are that original form had something to do with current predicament. It’s about gathering up the lessons and energy from the potentially crippling scene, and emerging stronger, wiser… knowing you have the fortitude to recover the next time. There’s always a next time.

Caught up in a merger-related downsizing? Maybe you’ve learned the importance of maintaining your external network before you need it. Project derailed? Maybe you’ve learned you need a better system for reinforcing accountability.

Related: 5 Ways to Be More Influential

4. Where’s the good news in this story?

I get that this sounds crazy when you’re on the steep decline of the emotional rollercoaster, but I promise you just this last week I had three leaders confide the glimmer of good news they saw in their bad news.

“The timing is terrible to lose these guys headed into our busy season, but the truth is this gives us a real opportunity to upgrade our leadership bench for long-term viability.”

“Losing this deal sucks, but they would have been a very difficult client to work with.”

“This project exposed some system vulnerabilities we didn’t know we had. Better to know so we can get them fixed.”

5. How can we? 

If you missed last week’s post on Overcoming Negativity click here for a very practical technique to shift your mindset to tangible solutions:

So given that reality, the next question is, “How can we make the situation better?”

Invite your team to brainstorm as many “How can we?” questions as possible for the problem at hand.  If you’re short on time, you can even assign this as homework and have team members come with a list of  “How can we?” questions to the next meeting. Gather all the questions on a whiteboard or easel sheets around the room.

The ability to rebound from setbacks and to help your team get through tough times is so vital for long-term success as a leader. If you’re feeling stuck, frustrated, or even a bit ticked off, it’s okay. Take a breath. And then consider your next best question and action.

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