When my son was little, his soccer team lost every game. He was disconsolate, and I did what every good parent does – reassured him that it was fine; bad luck; horrible weather; unimportant because of course the team would win next time, focused on the fun not the result. His spirits and hope had to be kept alive because the inverse would do him no good.
And on his trudge or race to adult hood I always did the same. A disappointing grade, a bruised heart, a friend’s betrayal. “Part of life” I would say, dispensing the conventional wisdom and stale words that you hope,as a parent, are fresh and new coming from someone who loves you best. Gingerly I would introduce questions: “could you have done anything differently for a different outcome?” hoping to move him from beating himself up to understanding.
Yet eventually many of us cross a line when the reassurances and encouragement that are an emotional IV for children morph into the analysis and recrimination that easily slide into criticism, fault and blame. It happens at home, and it definitely happens at the office. We’ve received it, and I’ll bet we’ve done it to others.
Small mistakes done once, like being ten minutes late to a meeting – no big deal. Maybe. But patience for error, understanding for the inevitable slippage of attention to detail or perfection of output…that’s often in short supply at organizations stressed by deadlines, poor market performance, competitive landscapes or tight budgets. For senior leaders, they perform with a base line expectation of excellence. How unrealistic is that? Excellence shares the same root as the word exception – not standard, but unusual.
The worst kind of blame, of course, is the one we visit on ourselves. So if you are beating yourself up for not achieving what you had hoped, or finding someone else to point the finger at, here are some ways to treat a loser that creates many more wins:
- Before you say a word, sit down and make two columns on a sheet of paper. On one side, list all the external factors that contributed to the loss. From inflated goals to lack of resources, to unforeseen events or bad information. On the other, write what you hold yourself or the other person responsible for. Are the sides equal? One factor more predominant above all others? This analysis will dial down the emotion of recrimination and let you more easily identify corrective actions.
- Look for the pattern, not the instance. If something has occurred once, let it go. If twice, make a mental check note. Three times? You have a pattern that should be dealt with. Criticizing a one off, unless it’s really egregious, will only create excess caution and hurt your own reputation as fair minded and reasonable. If you do it to yourself, you’re wasting a whole bunch of time and energy that could be put to something far more useful and productive.
- Make it short and bittersweet. No need to linger on what went wrong, but it must be addressed. Don’t sugar coat it, but don’t hammer every detail. Say it cleanly, directly, kindly. And when speaking about yourself, own it and figure out what if anything you might have learned or articulate the questions you didn’t ask.
- Acknowledge the impact. Instead of drilling down on what went wrong, share the consequences and ripple effects that might not be as obvious. Customers now concerned about responsiveness? Finance thinking we have bad forecasts? Clarifying the impact of a bad mistake or poor decision reinforces that in organizations one person’s failure is another person’s headache, stressing that working cross functionally and having a wider perspective is essential to success.
- Solve the problem jointly. The saddest thing about the photo above is how alone she feels. Don’t let this to happen to you or someone who works with you. Offer both a kind ear and a sharp brain. Help them identify options and opportunities, ways to mend fences and repair tempers.
- The pendulum swings. No matter how disheartened you are by a loss at something you cared about – something you were sure you were going to nail, something you really wanted – take heart. You didn’t win this one – but we all live to win another day.
- My son eventually ditched soccer and went on the be a state and national champion in a completely different sport. Every loss he has, I feel deeply. Every loss I have, I feel deeply too. It’s not about not losing – you will too. It’s about what you say to the loser, even if that loser is you.