Oh-No! 5 Steps to Recover from Almost Any Setback

When you or the people you lead hit a setback, the goal is almost always the same: Don’t let it happen again.

Yet, despite your best efforts, it does sometimes happen again: Employees fail to get better. Projects miss goals. You fall short.

“What do you do afterward? You might go to a bar with friends, talk to your spouse, or call your mom,” says Neal Roese, the John L. and Helen Kellogg Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who researches judgment and decision-making. “But those are just delay tactics. Soon the ruminating will begin.”

You and your employees likely mull over what went wrong, then vow to focus on what’s ahead.

While that might sound like a reasonable approach, Roese offers a research-proven way to recover from setbacks and outright failures.

He shares the approach women in leadership can use, whether you’re overcoming a personal or team issue, or helping an employee rebound.

It’s called “counter-factual thinking.” With this approach, you imagine alternatives to what’s happened.

It’s not always pretty. But it’s insightful and promises to ease some pain from the failure and quickly get you in a position to do better.

Here’s how it works:

1. Imagine a better outcome

When you sit down (alone or with your group) to review the failure, you can’t just say, “Reaching the original goal is the better outcome.”

Instead, you want to focus on specific actions throughout the project, seemingly small issues for each and how they could’ve been better. Consider the alternatives and where you would’ve landed had they occurred.

Let’s say, you (or your team) lost a bid on a major project. You seemed to be on target early in the game, but the client indicated you were falling behind other providers about two-thirds of the way. Maybe if you set higher standards for your presentations at first, or expected and planned some changing needs, you would’ve been on the mark.

2. Imagine another better outcome

Roese and fellow researchers found if you challenge yourself to think of a second positive outcome, you will avoid and overcome “hindsight bias “ – the natural tendency to fixate on one idea as the be-all end-all.

Exploring just one better outcome often makes leaders and their teams over-confident in their assessment of the setback and their abilities to overcome something similar in the future. A second alternative helps you avoid attributing the failure to a simple, one-off mistake.

For our existing example, imagine if your team helped create the goals and pace for this project, rather than follow the process you normally do for similar client acquisition. Would that have made them more vested in the project and prompted them to react faster when they lost ground with the prospect?

3. Imagine a different path that leads to the same outcome

Call this your “even if.”

For example: You might say, “Even if we set better goals and monitored the project more closely, we would’ve had to keep up with our other responsibilities and missed the goal.”

This can help you and your team recognize obstacles that you didn’t anticipate, notice or articulate — and, in hindsight, fell victim to — along the way.

This important step gives you the means to figure out how to overcome obstacles (perhaps, in our example, delegate outside your department) in your rebound.

4. Imagine the same path that leads to a different outcome

In this step, chart the path you followed and imagine how it could have led to a better and worse outcome … because every failure could be worse.

For instance, imagine you kept that early on advantage over your competitors. Everyone worked as expected. The client loved the work, and all the stars were aligned.

Now imagine you kept that advantage, half your team got the flu and the you never had time to recover from the setback.

This step is a reality check: You’ll see that same steps could lead to different endpoints. This can help leaders recognize, respect and try to prepare for outside forces that can have major impact on success in the reboot.

5. Imagine a worse outcome

This is the feel-good step, mixed with a dose of realistic preparation.

Note a worse outcome (for instance, losing the bid and being told to never submit another with that client) and what you did right to avoid it.

Note what worked really well throughout the process or project to broaden your view of what happened – and what needs to happen in the next go-round.

Every failure recovery will be different. But this five-step approach has research that proves it successful almost every time it’s used.