Sunday, May 10, 2009

How Leaders Use a Setback as Feedback

j0334318jpeg Every leader experiences obstacles and setbacks. Yet few know how to manage them well. In fact, leaders rarely speak about difficulties. We are taught to have a positive mental attitude, be upbeat, wipe off the dust and grit of the journey and move on. It’s fine to put a positive spin on a negative event. Yet too much spin makes us dizzy, especially if there are lessons to be learned from the obstacle. A setback is often a teacher dressed in pain if you have a method of learning from it. The most effective leaders think of a setback as feedback waiting for meaning.

I encourage you to adapt the following four-step approach to extract your lessons when you and your team encounter “negative” feedback while pursuing your goal.

1. Don't just do something, sit there.

In his book, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton writes about the agonizing experience of watching his father die of cancer. (1) He says he learned the most powerful lesson about pain - the only way through the pain is through the pain. Having lost my mother to the same disease, I think Merton is right - the first step in dealing with a setback is to step back and let the pain have its way with you. In time, you will be ready to move on. But first, you must mourn. Your soul needs to be with the pain of loss before you can get over that loss. The amount of recovery time should be proportional to the value you placed on the loss or setback. I often took a day to sulk after losing sales orders that meant a lot to me. It doesn’t really matter what you do with your recovery time, only that you take it.

The Christian religion teaches that Christ rose from the dead after being crucified. However, he only ascended after he spent three days in a sealed cave. Whether you believe in the teaching or not, think of his three days in the darkness as a metaphor for what we all need to do when we experience loss. We need time in the darkness, time to be still, time to reflect. It’s easier to see our light at night because contrast is how we see. Your cave is the start of your re-birth, your “resurrection.”

2. Write for insight.

Intuition isn’t easily heard amid the clamoring noise of work. Your still, small voice may have something to whisper in the silence. I encourage you to write to gain insight about your setback. First thing in the morning, write three pages of nonstop, brain dump. Don’t think, don’t process, and don’t force anything. Just write three pages of fast, flash, first thoughts. Let your inner voice have a voice. Don’t worry about what spills out. You need an outlet for what may be seething below the surface. Have faith you will hear what you need to hear. Here are a few incomplete sentences to jump-start your writing:

  • This hurts...
  • In my darkest hour...
  • The pain of birth teaches...
  • I have grown through adversity by...
  • Lessons I have learned the hard way...

3. Lessons learned report

After grieving and reflecting on a setback, it’s time to concentrate on what you learned and will do differently. Obstacles and setbacks can be learning experiences if you choose to look for meaning. The attribution theory in psychology teaches us that making meaning out of what happened in the past influences the future. Therefore, within a week of your setback write a brief report on the lessons learned. A quick way to do this is to take a blank sheet of paper and draw a line right down the middle. Title the left column, Went Well. Title the right column, Do Differently. Next, brainstorm a list of all the things you feel went well as you pursued your goal (on the left side). Then write a list of all the things that you will do differently on the right side. What will you do more or less of? What could you do better next time? Just brainstorm and let your ideas flow. The whole purpose of this step is to direct your attention on how to use the lessons of this experience to help in the future. We don’t learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience. Feedback is only feed forward when we learn.

4. Choose happiness.

People behave in ways they believe will increase their happiness. The formula below, fully explained in a previous blog, is a simple equation that predicts how happy leaders are after any setback.

Happiness = Experience - Expectations

This formula says that your level of happiness with any event or situation is equal to how you choose to perceive that experience minus your attachment to the expectations you had prior to the event. For example, think about the last time you were disappointed after seeing a movie. On a scale of 1 to 10, what score would you assign to the expectation you had prior to that experience? (Go ahead; pick a high number if you had high expectations.) Next, on a scale of 1 to 10, what score would you assign to the experience immediately after you had the experience? (Pick a low number if you thought the movie was lousy.) If you do the math (experience - expectations), you have your “happiness score.” If expectations were very high (a 9 on our scale) and your experience was low (a 3 on our scale), the number is negative. (3-9 = -6) If your subtraction gives you the number zero, the formula says you are satisfied. Your expectations were met. Whatever number you come up with, it represents how happy or satisfied you feel, overall, after any experience, event or situation.

If we want to be happy, this happiness formula teaches us to:

  • Choose to have high expectations prior to any situation.
  • Choose to see the good or positive lesson in every experience (or situation).
  • Choose to let go of our expectations after the experience (or situation).

So, keep your expectations high as your pursue your goal. However, let go of these expectations when you encounter an obstacle or setback. Remember, a “negative” experience doesn’t make you miserable, your attachment to it does.

Use this four-step system described here to help you see any setback as feedback waiting for meaning. Take time off, lick your wounds, and learn your lessons from the pain. Then stop complaining, refocus on your goals, and get back in the saddle again. Let me know how this approach, or your own, works for you.

Keep eXpanding,


1. Merton T: The Seven Storey Mountain. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York, 82, 1948.


Jenna said...

What a fantastic post. This seems an excellent approach to dealing with setbacks in a positive way. I like that it allows for wallowing, which other approaches seem to despise, but which is healthy in small doses. Thank you!

Dave Jensen, Leadership Expert said...

Hi Jenna,

Thanks so much for your comments. I like to think that "first we mourn with tears, then we honor with action."


Eshan said...

Nice!!! A good leader has a perfect character. It is of utmost importance that a leader is trustworthy to lead others.