CHAPTER 23

Help Your Team Bounce Back from Failure

by Amy Gallo

No one likes to fail. And while we all know the importance of learning from mistakes, both individuals and teams can struggle to bounce back from big blunders. Whether it was a project that didn’t meet its targets or an important deadline that you all missed, what can you do to help your employees recover? How can you help them see the experience as an opportunity for growth instead of the kiss of death?

What the Experts Say

It’s often harder to lead a team past a failure than it is to help one person. “People are coming into projects with different expectations, perspectives, levels of investment, and different things at stake,” explains Susan David, a founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and the author of the HBR article “Emotional Agility.” “Some people may be very resilient, and others might feel more bruised,” says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist and author of The Blame Game. “All the things that individuals fall prey to—misattribution and rationalization—are compounded on a team and add exponential complexity to the process.” It doesn’t matter whether one person on your team is at fault or if everyone bears some of the responsibility, it’s your job as the manager to help the entire group move on. Here’s how.

First, take control of your own emotions

Research shows that a leader’s feelings are far more contagious than a team member’s, so while “you don’t want to suppress your emotions, you don’t want to get stuck in a moody, negative space either,” says David.1 Do whatever you need to move on from the disappointment so that you’re ready to help your team deal with theirs. And don’t try to fake it. You need to be genuinely in control of your feelings or your team will see through you.

Give them space

At the same time, you shouldn’t become a “beacon of positivity” before the team is ready, David says. It’s OK to let everyone wallow in “disappointment and negative feelings” for a little while. She points to a client whose team lost a client pitch they’d been working on for months. It happened on a Friday and on Monday morning she came in saying, “Let’s move on.” Although she was trying to be motivating and forward-focused, to her devastated team, she “came off as uncaring and uncommitted.” In fact, negative or neutral emotions are conducive to deductive reasoning, which means they can help your team more effectively process and analyze the failure. When you acknowledge the disappointment—with comments like “We’re feeling down” or “This is tough for us”—“you’re not just stroking people’s emotions. You’re facilitating a critical appraisal of the situation.”

Be clear about what went wrong

Don’t sugarcoat what happened or resort to “corporate speak” that abdicates responsibility. Avoid phrases like “Let’s look on the bright side,” “We’re lucky it happened this way,” “We suboptimized,” or “A mistake was made.” Instead, be clear: “We missed the deadline because we didn’t take into account how long each task would take.” When you focus on the facts, Dattner says, you can call it like it is without being demotivating.

But don’t point fingers

“It’s more important to focus on what’s to blame, rather than who is to blame,” Dattner says. If the fault really does lie with one person or a few people, then talk to those individuals in private and focus on their actions, not character. Dattner suggests you say something like: “Here’s the mistake you made. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, but we need to understand why so it doesn’t happen again and we can move on.” You can also address the group, but be sure to do it in a way that doesn’t single anyone out. David recommends an exercise where each team member writes down and shares a piece of feedback for each person on the team. “This allows for personal feedback that is also equitable,” she explains.

Shift the mood

At some point, it’s also important to move on from analyzing the failure to talking about what comes next. “The mutual commiserating and examination of what went wrong is useful only up to a point,” says David. After a day or two (or maybe longer if the failure was a big one), push your team to more strategic, open-minded thinking and discuss how you will avoid similar mistakes in the future. Call a meeting and make sure that the tone is positive and energized. Dattner says you can use humor to lighten the mood.

Tell a story

You can help everyone begin to see the experience as a learning one by telling them about a mistake you’ve made in the past. “It can be very powerful when a leader authentically shares a time when they have a crucible-type failure that became a stepping-stone in their career,” says David. If you don’t have a story—or don’t feel comfortable sharing it—consider drawing one or two out from the group. You could say something like: “We’ve all been on failed projects that ultimately proved to be constructive. Would anyone be willing to share?”

Encourage collaboration

Then have a conversation about the lessons learned from this experience. Don’t lecture; discuss. David recommends dividing the team up into two groups: One half thinks through what could go wrong in future projects, while the other half focuses on the positive—what the team can change going forward. It’s important to “focus more on solutions than problems, more on the future than the past,” says Dattner.

Case Study: Allow your team to vent

Chris Bullock (not his real name) and his five-person team were responsible for upgrading application software for his company’s most challenging client. This involved a large data migration, which did not go as planned. The day after the group turned the switch on the migration, they noticed that the system wasn’t working properly and calls from the client started coming in. While Bullock and his team hadn’t written the actual code, they had been the ones in charge when it failed, so many at the company were blaming them. They were disappointed and angry. “We put a lot of time and late nights into the project, and for it to fail—and so spectacularly—was embarrassing,” he says.

The team worked through the weekend to fix the problem. On Monday, Bullock left them alone. “For me, these types of failures are like bereavements, and as such, people need to work through a similar process,” he explains.

On Wednesday, the group met to talk about what had gone wrong. They discussed questions like: “Could we have spotted it sooner? Why hadn’t the test cases found it?” This allowed them to vent their frustrations to each other. As a result, by Thursday, they were ready to have a much more constructive discussion with a larger group about how to do things differently next time around.

“We got back on the horse quickly and did the upgrade again two weeks later, and this time, with a successful result,” Bullock says. The team learned a lot from the experience—most important that they were “stronger together.”

__________

Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017) and the forthcoming Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People). She writes and speaks about workplace dynamics. Follow her on Twitter @ amyegallo.

NOTE

1. Thomas Sy and Stephane Cote, “The Contagious Leader: Impact of the Leader’s Mood on the Mood of Group Members, Group Affective Tone, and Group Process,” Journal of Applied Psychology 90, no. 2 (2005): 295–305.


Adapted from “How to Help Your Team Bounce Back from Failure,” on hbr.org, February 27, 2015 (product #H01WMD).

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