Talking about Setbacks is an Opportunity for Growth

RBLP Staff – Building and Leading Resilient Teams Series

Top-performing leaders view setbacks and failures as opportunities to learn. Examining setbacks in a professional, non-confrontational way helps the team adapt, grow, and move forward.

When something goes haywire on the job, you, as the team leader, must make sure that the team talks about the setback. You must have a process for doing so, and you must establish an environment free of fear, blame, and anger so that the discussion is productive, not divisive.

These setback or failure discussions are sometimes referred to as an after-action review (AAR). When you gather to talk about setbacks, you are helping the team interpret the past and shape their expectations for the future.

Letting off steam is also part of the process. When things go wrong, team members need an outlet to vent their stress. Talking about setbacks can provide closure. It allows people to find benefits and meaning in adversity. Most important, talking about setbacks with the team is an opportunity for learning that can prevent the same mistakes from happening again.

Two cautionary notes: One: Never overlook an opportunity to examine a failure or setback with your team. As grueling as the failed project may have been, you cannot simply shrug and say, “I’m so glad that’s over with! Let’s forget it ever happened!” Fleeing the scene of the crime is the antithesis of leadership. Two: Accept your own measure of responsibility. You as leader are responsible for your team’s work, no matter how it happened to fall apart.

There are several levels of setbacks and failures, so your AAR process needs to be appropriately flexible.

There’s the quick turnaround, less formal review. During the workday, the team may run into a problem with a project that is midway toward completion. In that case, the leader has the opportunity to take a time out to see what’s going wrong. Think of it as the halftime performance review of a football game. The game ain’t over till it’s over, so the team has another half to get things sorted out. You can do the same by gathering your people around and getting their immediate input on what can be done to get the project on track today.

Then there’s the “success” that the team knows didn’t represent its finest work. Yes, the customer was happy. But your staff has solutions fresh in their minds that would have led to a more satisfactory outcome. Don’t wait until they’re neck deep in another project. Call a 30-to-60-minute meeting for the next morning to solicit their ideas for doing it better next time.

Now we come to the big one: a true failure. This is where your skills at objectively reviewing what went wrong will determine how resilient your team will be next time something breaks down.

Set a specific time for the review, and make sure everyone attends. When reviewing the project, don’t overlook what went right with it, because surely some of the work was done well. But be clear about dissecting the breakdowns. Solicit opinions from the entire team. No blaming. Generally speaking, if you have built a solid team, people will acknowledge that everyone had a role in the disaster. That, of course, includes you.

How you lead your team after a setback will reveal your true leadership character. If you establish a pattern of talking about setbacks, you will find that your team rebounds quickly from them. Review setbacks is at the very heart of building resilient teams. Always look at setbacks as an opportunity for learning and growth–for your team, and for yourself.