Handling Unexpected Setbacks Like a Winner

What happens when you fall down? I have a pastor friend whose church plant recently had to shut its doors after a couple years of financial, emotional and time sacrifices. Another friend’s restaurant wasn’t able to renew the property lease and now it’s closed. Several colleagues have had high profile work projects in both the recent and distant past overlooked, postponed or shut down after significant mental and emotional effort. What comes next?

There’s no question that setbacks are a part of business – and a part of life. We can minimize some of them, but we won’t be able to avoid them completely. Once they happen, it’s what comes next that is the crucial part. If you find yourself encountering a setback, here are some next steps.


Talk About It

It’s important to give a voice to disappointment. The bigger the setback, the more important it is to put it into words. The counselors for the Pam Am Flight 73 hijacking advised the survivors to write down their experience as part of their treatment plan. Words have power. Don’t tell everyone about your setbacks; find someone you trust and who is a good listener. Share what happened, your thoughts or feelings about it and thank them for listening. It’s a lot easier to take the next steps when you’ve put your thoughts into words.

Acknowledge the Hard Work & Sacrifices

It’s enough of a challenge to pause and celebrate success. How much more do we overlook the investment that went into a setback? But ironically, most of the disappointment comes from the waste of the investment (especially the emotional investment). Acknowledging the hard work does not mean celebrating failure. It simply validates the worth of the effort that was given.

Count the Wins AND Lessons Learned

Whether you succeed or fail, there are ALWAYS positive and negative takeaways. If you don’t capture these at some level, you’re doomed to repeat the same outcomes. Evaluate what went well as well as areas that could be improved to increase the likelihood of success next time.

Acknowledge the Lack of Control

In any setback, it’s easy to focus on the factors outside our control and just move on. But it’s likely that many are within our control as well. Acknowledging a lack of control helps with managing future expectations, but don’t stop there. Think of ways you can improve the areas where you have control – and ways you can creatively influence the contributing factors where you don’t. There is usually much more we can do than we initially realize.

Take a Breather

Sometimes we need to take a step back before we jump start our next big thing, especially if there was a sense of loss. So take a creative day off. Schedule a down week. Clear your head and gear up for what’s next. But don’t let time get away from you. There’s a difference between taking a timeout and calling it quits. If you take too much time off, you risk getting in a rut.

Redirect & Reengage

When we’re coming off a loss, we usually come back with something to prove. So we throw ourselves twice as hard into the work as a way to make up for the setback. Be careful. You could go down a different path to the same destination. Let the strategy dictate what comes next. If the strategy is uncertain, invest the time to hash it out. They reengage with a sense of purpose.

Get a Quick Win

Finally, once you’ve reengaged following a setback, find something you can celebrate quickly. It doesn’t have to be big. Just get something quantifiable to demonstrate your new progress. Your team needs it and so do you.

At the end of the day, remember that most setbacks aren’t final. They’re only temporary. As NFL coach John Fox is fond of saying, “Sometimes setbacks are setups for better things to come.” Hang in there!

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.

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