Every manager has had to address the failure of her team to deliver – a missed deadline, a glaring error, a poorly communicated message. My coaching work has provided me a more objective perspective regarding how managers can best handle team failure. It has also made me realize that I could have managed this dilemma more effectively with my own teams.
When a team fails to deliver, managers, including myself, often have the following rash judgements:
- “The team does not recognize that this is completely unacceptable.”
- “The team does not understand my standards or does not care about them.”
- “The team does not have a strong work ethic.”
- “The team is incompetent.”
Underlying these judgements is the manager’s disappointment and anxiety that “this makes us look bad, and therefore this makes me look bad.”
The way a manager reacts in the moment of failure has a long-term impact on the team’s future success.
When a manager acts on her impulsive thoughts, she will likely accuse and direct, use stern words, and make the team feel scolded. Then she may micro-manage them until they deliver as needed. This is exactly what I did as a manager, and it led my team to feel demoralized, misunderstood and resentful. It also resulted in some team members rationalizing why the failure was not their fault, rather than examining what they could have done differently. As the team internalized my reaction, they moved forward with feelings of indignation, anxiety and trepidation – emotions that typically don’t lead to high quality results in the long-run.
What I have learned through my coaching is that the most productive emotions a team can feel are ownership and empowerment, particularly after a failure. Ownership of the mistakes helps team members reflect on what they could have done differently to get to a more successful outcome. Empowerment motivates team members to persevere through the challenges of getting things right. And of course, ownership and empowerment lead to much better results than indignation, anxiety, trepidation and resentment.
In order to promote ownership and empowerment, a manager must demonstrate empathy.
Rather than act on the knee-jerk judgements cited above, the manager should take a deep breath, say her expletives only in her head, and take an inquisitive, non-judgmental approach to help the team figure out how to produce better results. She can start by simply saying “Help me understand what happened.” As the team examines and explains what happened, the manager should empathize with the challenges they faced (e.g., “I understand why that would be confusing”) so that the team is more forthcoming about issues, wrong turns and roadblocks. Empathetic questioning not only helps the manager develop a keen understanding of what went wrong, but it helps the team develop it as well. By asking open-ended, non-threatening questions, the manager can facilitate an insightful discussion that identifies the key issues that led to the failure. The discussion strengthens the team’s ownership of the problem given they are identifying the issues themselves, rather than reacting defensively to a manager’s accusations about who did what wrong.
Once the issues are identified, the manager can then ask, “What are the best next steps?” and “How will the team make sure this does not happen again?” The discussion around these questions empowers the team to develop their own solutions to fixing the problems and ensuring the problems do not reoccur.
When I reflect on my own management, some of my biggest regrets relate to how I handled my team’s failures. Too often I took the “accuse and direct” approach which led to friction and frustration. As I often say, mistakes are wisdom in the making. My mistaken approach taught me the wisdom and the power of demonstrating empathy, especially in times of failure.