Get ready to fail

Three tips for handling setbacks

You will fail. It’s inevitable, so you might as well begin preparing for it now. The failure may be small, like, say, making a mistake on a client engagement. Or it may be quite grand, like losing a job you valued. How you handle that failure can raise or lower the risks of failing again — and shape your legacy as a leader.

Some people handle these setbacks well. Others not so well. In my work, I’ve observed several common themes among those leaders who tend to cope particularly effectively with the inescapable.

Acknowledge the failure and put it in perspective. You can’t begin to bounce back from a mistake if you don’t admit you’ve made it. As obvious as it sounds, it’s clearly not always easy to do. Research shows that owning up to their mistakes is the key factor separating those who handle failure well from those who don’t. Those who were derailed perseverated and didn’t talk to others about it. They made little attempt to rectify the consequences. Those who weren’t derailed did the opposite: they admitted their mistakes, accepted responsibility, and then took steps to fix the problem. And afterward they proceeded to forget about it and move on.

One: Look for causes, not blame

If you’ve caused a problem, the good news is that you have control over that cause. By focusing on finding the cause(s) rather than assigning blame (with all the value judgments that go with that), you take control and move to prevent similar failures from happening again. Thinking in terms of causes rather than blame is similar to adopting what Carol Dweck describes as a “growth-oriented” rather than a “fixed” mindset. A fixed mindset tends to leave us helpless and ready to wilt in the face of a challenge. A growth mindset puts us in a position to press on toward success.

Two: Take a break

Before you wrack your brain to think up an appropriate response, take a break. Get away from the task at hand for a while and let your brain refocus. None of us is designed to work 24/7, but in the wake of failure, it’s often hard to stop thinking about what’s happened. As counterintuitive as it sounds, this is probably the last thing you should do. Engage in other pursuits. Spend time with loved ones, read, or simply get some rest. Physical activity is a plus (we’re all familiar with the effects of endorphins on brain activity). It doesn’t matter how long the break: five minutes, five hours, five days. The point is to let your mind wander. You’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

Three: Get some help

Feeling down is normal. Prolonged periods of depression and despair are not. If you find you can’t get into that growth-oriented mindset no matter how much of a break you take, find some way to express your feelings in the company of someone you trust. That could be a friend, a colleague, a mentor, or a therapist. There’s no shame in seeking help when you’ve suffered a setback. And therapy no longer carries the stigma of being damaged. To prove that, I’ll admit here that I’ve gone to therapy at times in my life when I’ve felt particularly down, and it has helped immensely. See, no stigma.

Four: Refocus, take action

Nothing will make you feel quite as good as taking action and finding even a modicum of success in that action. It may take some time to reach that success, but you certainly won’t have any until you start trying. One of the ways we feel better is to exert influence and control over a situation, and creating a plan of the actions we intend to take is a surefire way to start feeling that control. Create your plan and get specific about what you’ll do to reach your new goals. While you can’t change what’s happened, you have options for the future, and as you refocus your efforts, think about what would be best from this point forward.

No matter how you dice it, failing is a drag, and none of us likes it. Yet we all have to face it sometime. If you prepare yourself, and know how you will deal with it when you do fail, you’ll be able to bounce back that much faster.

Do you have tips that you can share that may help others recover from a setback? What is the risk you take when you don’t handle failure appropriately?

NOTE: Originally published by Harvard Business Review in 2012.  Copyright 2012 Harvard Business Review.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted by permission.

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