It was the type of bad news email you don’t like to receive. A costing error had been made on the packaging for a new product I was working on in a former job. A big error. The container for the product, already deep in production, was now going to cost a lot more to produce than the costing forecast had estimated. This meant a deep cut to the product’s revenue projections. My supervisor was now going to have to account for the loss of budgeted revenue in our work area. This project was part of my job responsibility and now there was a significant problem with it. There was no way to fix it. I was team leader for a project that now had a pretty big flub-up. I needed to figure out fast what my next steps needed to be.
What you do with setbacks will reveal more about your character than most any other life experience.
If you work long enough you are going to be part of some pretty big mistakes. Some are due to inexperience and some aren’t necessarily even going to be your fault. Some are because of an honest mistake on your part and some come because, frankly, you just took your eye off the ball and something important got by you. Whatever the case may be everyone fails at different points. Experiencing failure, however, is not the test of your competence. What you do with setbacks and how you handle them will reveal more about your character than most any other life experience. Read again, your reactions to failure communicate much more to supervisors and team members than the failure itself ever does.
So, what does one do when something blows up on them? What are the best ways to handle it? Here are the steps I would recommend.
Breathe and ignore your natural instincts.
Bad news can be hard to take and it’s easy to panic. News of something big going wrong often sets off an internal “fight or flight” type of response. You may want to get mad and find people to shift the blame toward or you may simply want to run home, turn off your phone, and hide in the closet for a while. Neither extreme will serve you well. The first step is to breathe in and put things into context. Yes, the mistake may be bad and embarrassing. It is wise, however, to remember the list of things you can do that will totally shut down the business you are working for is, in reality, pretty short. Likely what just happened isn’t on that list of utter catastrophes. Do not take immediate actions you may later regret. Take a few deep breaths, take a quick walk around the building, go get drink of water, do anything that gives you a bit of distance from your initial reactions and allows room for some context to set in. After that initial reaction passes you will be better equipped to think of what other options exist other than finding a scapegoat to blame or moving to a foreign country where no one knows you.
Once you are ready for some clear thinking begin to consider the new reality.
What I mean here is the key to a healthy and productive response begins with accepting that the consequences of this mistake have created a new reality. Get out of the land of “what ifs” in regard to what just happened. There will be time later to walk back through the steps that got you here. Right now the new priority has become offering a measured view of the situation. Whether you like it or not this situation is your new reality. Embracing that will get you to a much healthier place of assessing the damage or the consequences. As an exercise try to think through “because” and “result” scenarios. Begin to look at what has happened and what the result of it is. For example: Because this critical deadline was missed the result will be XXXX. Capture your “because/result” statements first on a list so that you can clearly establish what you are dealing with.
Develop solution scenarios.
Now that you have clearly established the reality of the situation you can begin to look at how to move forward. Don’t focus necessarily on how to “fix” the breakdown that caused it just yet, there will be time for that later. Right now you need ideas on how to mitigate the consequences and a plan for moving forward. Look at the affected parties (customers, teammates, supervisor, etc.) in the “because/result” statements and make sure you have ideas on what solves problems they might be inheriting due to this challenge. Seek to come up with 3-5 solid recommendations on how to move forward in light of the challenge that has come up. Don’t sit on this too long trying to come up with all the possible answers; the damage could be piling up while you are trying to perfect a solution. You just need to have several workable idea drafts of potential actions fleshed out.
Inform supervisor as quickly as you can.
Here is the delicate part of the dance. Your supervisor or team leader needs to know this information as quickly as possible. One of the most egregious mistakes you make in the workplace is allowing your supervisor to get blindsided by information you knew from someone else (customers, their own supervisor, the press). That’s a ticket to either never seeing a promotion or a quick termination. On the other hand, another career-killer is going to a supervisor with problems and no recommendations on how they might be addressed. They may not use any of your recommendations but just the fact you have thought about responses sends a strong proactive message. Taking the time to do this is the key point in your rebound from this setback. During this time take the opportunity to explain the situation without attributing blame, present potential recommendations you have for addressing it, and give assurance that you will be doing a thorough review and follow-up report in the coming days as to what caused this setback so that it doesn’t happen again. Taking these steps doesn’t guarantee that your supervisor won’t be upset, they very well might be, but the fact that you are coming to them owning responsibility and thinking through solutions communicates strongly that despite the setback you are still the type of employee they want on the job.
Take time to truly understand the opportunity that exists within the setback.
It doesn’t take much research to find stories of great inventions that came out of what was initially a setback. In fact, for a delicious example, did you know a chocolate crisis brought about the wonderful invention of Nutella? Now there is even a day set aside internationally to celebrate it!
More seriously, it is important to remember there is opportunity in every setback. It may be an opportunity to address an unforeseen weakness or vulnerability in a process or it might bring about some totally new possibility that would have been otherwise unsought. In some cases it may even be the opportunity to totally reinvent yourself. One thing it will always be is an opportunity to be seen as a problem-solver by your boss and your team. Those who allow themselves to wallow in self-pity or self-blame will struggle to move past the problem to find the opportunity that does exist. This setback may end up being the type of situation that finally lets you show what you can do. Every setback brings an opportunity, be the one who embraces it.
If we know we’ll never be beyond setbacks or having to account for them the key then becomes knowing how to respond the right way to them.
Setbacks are no fun and no one likes them. Truth is, however, you are never beyond setbacks or people to whom you will answer for them. People with decades of experience are going to have setbacks and even CEOs have boards to answer to when setbacks occur in the work. If we know we’ll never be beyond setbacks or having to account for them the key then becomes knowing how to respond the right way to them. At the end of the day we need to own the mistakes when they are ours and not seek to blame others. Even in the midst of embarrassment and disappointment there is a self-respect you will realize in owning up to a mistake. Regardless of the outcome it’s the right thing to do and what honors our responsibilities as image-bearers of Christ. Seeking to do the right thing above all and taking what you can learn from it will guarantee that no setback ever will become a total failure.