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Recovering From Setbacks

5 Unfiltered Steps to Recover From a Setback


This year has had more than its fair share of challenges, which comes with its fair share of mistakes. Which leaves me guessing that I’m not the only one out there who could use some refreshers on how to deal with setbacks.

Recently, I had a setback.
It was a tough one.

Have you ever had one of those setbacks that knocks the wind out of you? Throws you off your game? You know, the kind of setback that is more than just a “live and learn” kind of thing, more than can be easily taken in stride or chalked up to just “ending today smarter”? The kind that shakes your confidence and leaves you rattled and unsteady?

It was one of those.

I’m a “processor” - one of those folks who has to think things through and process them to figure out how I feel about them, what I think about them, how they color my next actions or my view of things. So I’ll confess it took me a bit to process this and find my footing.

I learned some things on my journey that I thought might be useful to others, so this post offers an unfiltered lens on how to recover from a mistake.

Step 1 - Put the shovel down.

Turn off the water. Stop throwing good money after bad. Whatever idiom you prefer, the gist here is that when you recognize you’ve made (or are making) a mistake, stop repeating the same actions. Make a deliberate change.

Imagine you’ve embarked on a minor home repair under your bathroom sink, and you’ve discovered you’re in over your head. Let’s say you’ve got the trap removed. Perhaps you thought to put a bucket under the sink to catch the drainage when you first pulled the trap out, but for whatever reason, you’ve set that bucket aside while you work. Now let’s say, trap in hand (but not in place), you turn the faucet on, and water starts running down into the cabinet under the sink.

The very best course of action at this very moment is to Turn. The. Water. Off.

This is not a great moment for reflection or self-talk, or even application to future life choices. This is a moment to stop the problem from getting worse. That’s the first step. When you realize you’ve dug yourself into a hole, put the shovel down.

Underlying emotions that can be useful: This is the time to act with urgency and a desire to stop the pain. Whatever drives you to swift action, tap into that. Move with purpose here.

Step 2 - Ask for help.

Bear with me on the sink analogy for a second, it works for this next step, too. While it’s possible that you are the one that got yourself into this mess, it’s also equally possible that you can’t extract yourself alone. You may need someone to run and grab some extra towels or perhaps to pass you that bucket you’d moved just out of reach. Ask for help.

I continue to find that the people who are close to us are far more willing to give help than many of us are to ask for it.

Need help? Ask.

Maybe you need help with the practical, tactical cleanup efforts.
Maybe you need a sounding board to help you figure out where things went sideways.
Maybe you need some creative problem-solving to help you sort out the details.

Go ahead and ask. Working through the next steps with someone else can help you get through faster and more effectively.

Underlying emotions that can be useful: Humility and courage are powerful emotions to tap into here - the humility to realize you can’t do it alone, and the courage to ask for help.

Step 3 - Review & Reflect.

Once you’ve taken action to stop the situation from getting worse, and once you’ve engaged help as needed, genuinely think about it. Don’t run from it or sweep it under the carpet. Spend some time thinking, analyzing, and assessing. Review the course of actions, decisions, and processes that led you to the setback in the first place.

Do your best to look at it from different perspectives rather than just your own. It’s highly likely that your natural tendencies or blind spots helped contribute to the situation in the first place, so make the effort to listen to input from others and try to view the situation from their perspective as well as your own.

Consider the inputs you’d received from others along the way and how you responded to them. Perhaps others had shared words of caution that you ignored. Perhaps there had been prior indications that your optimism was misplaced. Perhaps there were risks that had been identified but not managed.

Consider the circumstances that brought you there. Perhaps you were intentionally trying something new or engaged in something you knew was a stretch (taking an intentional risk, building skills, conducting an experiment you’d never tried before). Perhaps there were external factors that were out of your control (a global pandemic, perhaps?), but that impacted you, and you’d taken the best steps you could to respond to external circumstances.

See if you can look back and reflect on the series of events that led you to be standing in that hole.

Write them down, list them out, reflect on them, and consider what could have been handled differently.

Look for external clues, internal cues, and personal choices.
Look for structures or systems that contributed to the problem or guard rails that were missing that could have helped prevent it.

The idea here is to gather the information in a fairly objective way; do something that looks like clinical research to make sure you uncover all the things you need to know.

Underlying emotions that can be useful: Curiosity is a powerful emotion here. Ask questions of others and of yourself, fueled by the desire to get to the bottom of it. There’s no need to activate judgment here, just curiosity. Seek to understand.

Step 4 - Own it.

I’ve seen two different extremes on this one, and neither are particularly helpful.

There’s the one extreme that takes no blame - the one who assigns the fault to others or to the circumstances, who responds as if they had no control over the situation at all, and who doesn’t wrestle with their own accountability. The problem with this extreme is that the one who lays the blame at the feet of others becomes disempowered and misses out on the strength and growth that come from owning one’s mistakes.

The other extreme isn’t much better - the one who takes all the blame, and who beats themselves up over it. The problem with this second extreme is that it deprives others of the opportunity to grow from owning their accountability, and at the end of the day, it can be pretty paralyzing. It creates an overwhelming and unrealistic burden that weighs us down.

Both extremes also set us up to be back in a similar hole in the future. If I take no accountability for digging the hole I was in, then I’ll likely dig a similar hole tomorrow. If I take all the accountability for everything, I can’t engage in realistic conversations about how to set us up together to co-create future greatness. Truth be told, we co-create our environments, and especially in workplace setbacks, there are systems that can be fixed or created to help prevent future issues if we recognize the need for them.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, and resolution requires owning what you own and helping others own what they own. Give yourself grace for being human, and give others grace for their humanity as well. We are all flawed, imperfect beings. But we can own our mistakes, and we can learn from them.

Underlying emotions that can be useful: I recommend compassion and desire for excellence here, with at least a touch of pragmatism. If you find you’re heading to one extreme or the other, add in some realistic discussion, and then shift to accountability not to judge, but to help make better.

Step 5 - Move forward.

Now that you’ve reflected on what happened and what you own, what did you learn? What will you carry forward? What indicators will you watch for so that should you find yourself headed towards a setback in the future, you’ll be able to course correct faster? What systems or guard rails will you put in place? What will you avoid or do differently in the future?

Write it down, chart your course, and then do what you say you will do.

This setback has made you better, stronger, wiser - in what ways? Tap into that growth; think about it; make it part of your decision-making and self-talk going forward.

And forward is really the best place to go at this point. Make whatever course corrections you need to, and go. Don’t keep looking back - don’t forget what the past has taught you, but move forward.

I remember a fable about someone walking down a street and falling into hole. Once they got out of the hole, they walked down the same street again, and fell into the same hole. Again. And again. Eventually, they approached the same street and walked around the hole instead of falling in. And then, they walked down a new street…

The word picture is helpful - if you’re walking down that same street again, stop falling in the same hole. Take deliberate, eyes-wide-open actions to avoid the hole. And then look for ways to apply your new-found knowledge about how to avoid holes to make your stroll down the next street even better.

Underlying emotions that can be useful: Hope and confidence are really useful here: confidence that you’ve learned from the setback and hope that the future will be better.

How about you? What steps have you found useful in recovering from setbacks? What would you like to try going forward?

Topics: YP, Sinikka Waugh, Business Skills & Business Acumen, Communication & Collaboration

Sinikka Waugh

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!


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