It is inevitable that even an effective team will, at some point, come up against setbacks and even failure. The way setbacks are handled will have a bearing on whether a team continues to grow stronger, and whether they are able to handle these setbacks and bounce back. Here, we explore approaches leaders and their teams need to follow to overcome such setbacks and increase the team’s resilience.

Start by recognising the setback in an objective and honest way.

Setbacks need to be acknowledged. Adopting Root Cause Analysis as an approach, the team can ask several questions to address the issue in a systemic way: What factors contributed to this setback?  Was it inadequate planning, a lack of resources including time, missing information, leadership, limited technical capabilities? This will involve looking at the data objectively and having honest conversations inside and outside the team. In this way, the problem can be properly understood and appropriate strategies developed.

Team learning is recognised as one of the critical success factors for an effective team, helping it to learn from setbacks to identify similar obstacles in the future that will help it avoid a recurrence.  It is therefore important that the team has a safe space within which it can have honest conversations about what went wrong. It is also important that if mistakes were made, people own up to them, especially if it was the leader that made or contributed to a mistake. This is what makes psychological safety within teams and organisations so important.  It is also where team coaching can help in the process with the team coach guiding the team through the process of analysing the situation, identifying the root cause of the problem, and developing a plan of action to address it. This goes a long way towards avoiding the blame game and instead focusing on finding solutions to the problem.

Leaders need to stay positive.

Let’s face it, no one likes to fail or to find that they’re moving back instead of making progress. It is natural and easy for teams to become demotivated or negative when faced with setbacks. This is, of course, the moment where a leader needs to step up and be the ray of light in an otherwise gloomy day. A leader must maintain a positive attitude and focus on the opportunities that arise from the setback. The leader’s mindset needs to be one where the first question becomes “What can we learn from this?” rather than “Who’s to blame?”  This is also where the leader’s emotional intelligence will help to navigate the team’s emotions which could range from frustration to guilt, anger to anxiety and insecurity. An emotionally intelligent leader would be able to better support their team members to learn and grow, and to develop new skills or approaches.

Remaining calm in the face of adversity is an important dimension of executive presence and a characteristic of strong leadership. It is like a salve that soothes and gives confidence to the rest of the team.  Team coaching works in sync at both the collective and individual level and can therefore support team leaders to navigate this delicate time fraught with pitfalls, providing them with tools and support to help them project a sense of calm and positivity.

Avoid analysis paralysis and plan a way forward.

There is truth in the adage that once you fall off a bike, the best thing to do is to get back on it. The same applies to a team facing a setback.  Once it identifies how it fell off the bike in the first place (the root cause of the setback) it needs to get back on its bike and start paddling in the direction identified, considering what it has learnt. Otherwise, the team ends up in endless analysis of what led to the setback. One must emphasize, however, that the team should start on a new course of action once it is confident it has a better understanding of what will help it succeed, developing a plan of action to address it. This could involve making changes to the project plan, developing new processes or procedures, or even reorganising the team. The plan of action should be realistic and achievable and should involve all team members. Naturally, one would need to take the environment in which the team operates into account. A team operating in a volatile or ambiguous environment may not have the luxury of time to address the situation and its strategy may be to quickly try something different, assess its impact, and realign on the basis of the results.

Again, team coaching can support teams in assessing their environment, developing a plan of action by enabling open discussions to encourage creative and innovative thinking and input from all team members.

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Effective communication important in any situation but more so when handling setbacks. The lack of communication will create a void which will be filled by others if you don’t.  And it will probably be nothing like you’d want to project the situation. So, the first rule here is, communicate frequently and at regular intervals.

Also, without clear, open and honest communication with one other, and with stakeholders, addressing and moving forward from a setback becomes seriously hampered. Communication challenges could be having a difficult discussion with stakeholders, seeking approval for changes identified to be able to move forward, maintaining support, preparing for a review meeting and many others.  A team coach can support this by “bringing the action into the room”, helping team members to prepare for such communication challenges through role play as well as planning for challenging conversations.

There’s nothing like success to take away the taste of a loss.

Once you start moving forward again, celebrate success as it comes along. This could involve acknowledging small wins or milestones, or recognizing individual contributions.  Definitely, one should celebrate the successful completion of a project, using the occasion to reinforce the feel-good factor as a way of put the past setback or failure to rest. Here, team coaching can guide the team through the process of reflecting on their successes, which will build confidence and resilience for future projects.

So yes, setbacks and failures may be inevitable in any team project, but they should not be cataclysmic or end-of-the-world scenarios. A growth mindset and good leadership can help the team to grow and become more resilient by acknowledging the setback, staying positive, developing a plan of action, communicating effectively, and celebrating success.


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