Recovering from a Work Setback – Dos and Donts

I had an important meeting to lead yesterday. After six months of managing this project, I was hoping this meeting would be the final one needed to get there necessary agreement from all the key business stakeholders. Everything was looking good — we already went through 4 rounds of feedback, and addressed all the concerns voiced over emails or on previous calls. Some of the key stakeholders that I thought would have serious objections were now big supporters of our reject output. This last meeting was just going to be a formality to put the bow on the final product.

work setbackAt the last minute, a new senior stakeholder was invited and accepted the meeting.  She was one level higher than most of the stakeholders.  Still, I was not fazed — I already had her team’s support, and we had covered their feedback from every angle…or so I thought.

The meeting did not turn out as I hoped.  Not only did we not “wow” her, but her team members began to waiver on their level of support for finalizing this project. To summarize how the meeting turned out:

  • The senior person provided feedback from a perspective we didn’t expect.
  • My attempt to explain why we can’t do what she suggested only aggravated the situation and made it seem like I wasn’t listening.
  • One of her key team members started to express confusion on items we had previously clarified, which made it appear that we didn’t do our homework thoroughly.
  • The meeting ended with more questions than we had begun with, and she suggested we all needed to spend more time thinking of a solution to the issues she had raised.

Can you relate?  I think the more experience we have, the more likely these kinds of situations become.  We simply cannot predict everything, nor should we beat ourselves up for contributing to an unexpected work setback.

Well, easier said than done.  After the meeting, I felt terrible.  The first think I asked myself was, “What did I do wrong?” – an instinctive reaction of an overachiever. I have only been in meetings with this senior woman twice before. This was my chance to make a great impression, but I didn’t. What a bummer!

It was a work set back on two fronts for me:

  1. The progress of the project experienced a set back – we would need more meetings, and no clear options seemed to exist for the new feedback we had received.
  2. My work reputation took a set back with this senior person, and potentially with everyone at this meeting.  Ugh! Not a fun thought.

I was beginning to wonder if I was losing my touch, losing my skills.  This was a slippery and unproductive road and a good introduction of my list of DON’TS – what not to do to recover from a setback.

  1. Don’t beat yourself up – No one is perfect nor should anyone try to be perfect.  Everyone stumbles once in a while.  In fact, the most successful people in the business world probably have some of the best work setback or complete failure stories.  Here is a new perspective to consider adopting: If you never experience work setbacks, perhaps you are not taking enough risks or pushing yourself enough to learn new skills.  Setbacks help us learn and help build our skill set for success.  It’s a test of whether or not we can persevere through tough times.  Career success is usually only achieved through perseverance of many tough times.
  2. Don’t go and apologize to the senior person about your failure at this meeting.  I thought that I should just call her up and apologize, and then try to fix the situation one on one. This is the one female stereotype I agree with: we try to apologize way too much for things that we don’t have to apologize for. (For my male readers, let me know if you have the same impulse.) While I had this impulse, I quickly decided that it was not wise. Apologize will not help my work reputation or help the work itself. It’s only a trait that we default to in order to get rid of this guilty feeling we have for not doing something well, like when we were kids and we did something wrong. In a work situation, it’s never this black and white. The meeting simply didn’t go well, and it’s a waste of time to assign myself blame.

After thinking about it more clearly, I realized that the only way to recover from the setback on my work reputation, and on the work itself, was to focus on solving the problems raised in the meeting. This brings me to the list of Do’s — what to do to recover from a work setback.

  1. Forgive and forget – In order to clear my head, I had to get past the self-perception of a “failure” at work.  So what if I didn’t facilitate the meeting as well as I could?  It happens.  It’s okay.  It’s just one meeting.  I decided to forgive myself and start from neutral, mentally and emotionally.  I decided to leave this problem for the next morning, and decided to play with my daughters that night.
  2. Find root cause and make distinctions.  Once I had clarity in the morning, I replayed the meeting in my head. I realized that one of the reasons that the meeting got out of hand was because we didn’t clarify what was within the scope of the project.  The rest of us all knew it since we have been working together for a few months.  This senior person didn’t since this was her first meeting about this project.  We all made different assumptions.  Her suggestion is actually out of the project’s scope, but I didn’t realize it in the meeting.
  3. Strategize an approach to make progress.  The best thing to do for my reputation and this project was to figure out what to do next in order to finalize the project with the blessing of this senior stakeholder. I knew I didn’t have enough of a relationship with this senior person to call her directly, but I did have a great relationship with one of her key team members. I could call her up and communicate what I had realized, and get her feedback and help with convincing her boss.
  4. Take productive action.   Later that morning, that team member actually beat me to it and sent me an email to ask a few clarifying questions.  This was the perfect opportunity to provide more context.  I thanked her for her questions and replied to them by email.  I left the more sensitive part of the discussion to the call that I and planned to make later.  Some discussions are just easier and more effective by phone.  Long story short, we had a great call, and what seemed like an insurmountable setback yesterday now became a clear path for completion.
  5. Learn from it.  There is a common saying: “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”  If that is the case, I have a lot of experience.  What’s great about this even is that I learned a lot from it.  That is what enabled me to share this story with you today. Plus, this article will serve as a great reminder for me when I experience my next work setback.

These are just the lessons that I learned this week.  I hope they can help you in your work, as well.  We will all experience setbacks in our work, so the key skill to learn is how to respond to it, learn from it, and move past it to continue our journey towards a successful career.

I would love to hear your comments.  Can you relate to this story?  Is there anything you would do differently or do in addition? Share your comments and questions below.

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I am always in your corner

– Lei

3 thoughts on “Recovering from a Work Setback – Dos and Donts

  1. Rekha Post author

    OMG! Lei, I can relate to every single word of your article!!! The projects, meetings like these, their outcomes, the assumptions we make, the expectations, the clarity that is only as clear as mud, scope creeps, my reactions rather than responses, the beating up of myself, thoughts of if I am good enough or not?…name it and I can relate to it all!!!! Arrgghhhh…

    So many times I have felt like your articles are absolutely God Sent. Somehow, you touch on a topic that has been nagging me at that instance in my career, just like today’s. It is almost creepy!

    For the last year and half, I have moved to a new position in my company. A position that was offered to me by my then manager and director based on my prior reputation. It was mine if I wanted it…and I took it because it was something I wanted to be in for a long time. This is a totally different kind of a job and although I had some experience in it…it wasn’t my bread and butter for the previous 11 years. So, I have been struggling – mainly with understanding the business. I mean if a customer asks you to show a negative zero, how do you handle such a request and requestor!?!?!? I bet even your little one could tell that that is not possible.

    Along with the 2 Don’ts that you have mentioned – I have another one. I tend to constantly seek validation and approval from my customers, co-workers, and up-lines about my work. And that is doing me lot more harm than good! I have to stop doing that. Don’t know how.

    For the Do’s, surprisingly enough, recently I pumped my mind with the Do’s that you have listed. Not as structured and well laid out as you have. But, kinda-sorta the same. But now, having a formal guide-line so to speak will help. One more thing I decided to Do was – just visualize that I have dropped all the thoughts of self-doubt and other people’s negativity in a far corner outside the door. Don’t let them drag in with me into my (so called) office – or the 3’ x 6’ desk space and one chair that I use – because we have an open office concept!?!?!? I tell myself that I will deal with them at a later time…when I have time 😉 we’ll see.

    It feels good to know that others go through such situations as well. It takes a lot of courage to write an article like that…publish your inner most thoughts and feelings. Hats off to you. Thanks!!!!

    1. Lei Han Post author

      Rekha, it really made my day to hear you can related to my articles. I really like your additional tips. Thanks for sharing it with all of us. Visualization is a very powerful tool. Your example is great.

      Also glad to hear I am helping you just at the right time through our newsletter. It is amazing how common our experiences can be. I look forward to your comments in more articles.

      Best wishes,

  2. Ryan Cook

    This was a great article. I appreciated the honesty and reflectivity of this piece. This is a great example of learning from one’s mistakes.

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