Bouncing back from failure

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?

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.

“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. 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. It’s okay to let everyone wallow in disappointment for a little while.

+ Be clear about what went wrong. Avoid phrases like “let’s look on the bright side,” “we’re lucky it happened this way,” 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.”

+ But don’t point fingers. 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.”

+ Shift the mood. At some point, it’s also important to move on from analyzing the failure to talking about what comes next. After a day or two, 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.

+ 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.

+ 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.

(Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate