Chapter 14 - Developing resilience/coping with setbacks

Download All Figures and Tables

Note Click the tabs to toggle content

How do people recover from setbacks?

People have different coping mechanisms when they receive a serious setback in their careers. But some people emerge from the experience stronger than before. Useful advice on how they do this comes from Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, head of the Yale Leadership Institute, whose extensive research suggest that people who survive setbacks well:

Regroup immediately

Like the old adage about getting straight back onto a horse after falling off, the successful people he studied:

  • Accepted their own part in what had happened, acknowledging it both to themselves and to other people.
  • Set about rebuilding bridges immediately.
  • Reconnected with their network of friends and colleagues, helping them to understand his or her perspective and asking for continued support.

Redefine their mission

  • What skills and strengths they have, which have got them so far.
  • What they can still achieve.
  • What they need to bring about those achievements.

Coaches and mentors can use these insights to help coachees either once they have experienced a setback (to help them recover more quickly); or when it appears that a setback may be likely, in which case the coach/mentor can help them prepare for the event and ride through it more easily.

Supporting those with burnout

Burnout is a condition that afflicts many high flyers in organisations. Their lack of experience of failure or setbacks makes the golden ones particularly susceptible to burnout – they haven’t been inoculated by misfortune.
Signs of burnout can include:

  • Mood swings.
  • Anger.
  • Blaming.
  • Lack of feeling.
  • Lack of energy.

There are various types of burnout:

  • Classic burnout – crash and burn – leads to long-term absence from work and inability to function.
  • Chronic self-destructive pattern – resilience response - pulling back from the edge, recovering and returning to work, but not learning from the experience, so no long-term change in behaviour.
  • Joyless depletion – concerned only with work – but in survival mode rather than with energy or feeling.

The coach can respond to burnout in the coaching session in the following ways:

  • Honour the experience – neither stigmatise nor trivialise what the coachee is experiencing.
  • Attend to the contract between the coachee and their organisation.
  • Help the coachee find fulfilment more widely than achieving success in the organisation’s terms.
  • Help the coachee develop a sustainable model of leadership.
  • Put the coachee’s story at the centre of their recovery.
  • Help the coachee develop meaning and purpose.

Responsibility pie

The responsibility pie is a tool used to assist an individual to recognise that he or she is only part of a much larger picture. Many people blame themselves or others for things that are out of their control and this exercise is a useful process for working out what part of the situation belongs to whom.

  Download Figure fig_14.1

Ask your coachee to:

  • Describe the situation, all the parties involved and the sequence of events.
  • Draw a circle to represent the whole of the situation – the circle equates to 100 per cent.
  • Ascribe a percentage to all of the parties or circumstances.

Appraising situations

It is easy to blame oneself for setbacks that occur, but context plays an important role. It can be useful to have a tool to analyse one’s actions in terms of what the context demanded. Harold Kelley (1967) developed the Theory of Covariance to explain how people attribute causes, for example, someone else being late, to either the situation they are in or as due to a dispositional reason, i.e. something internally to do with the person themselves. He argued that for a particular event, the variables of consistency (whether the actor consistently behaves in a certain way in the situation), distinctiveness (whether the action is distinctive to the situation or also applied to other situations) and consensus (whether other people behave in this way) each change – assuming a high or low position, which, in turn leads to an internal (dispositional) attribution or an external (situational) attribution.

Using this framework, you can help the coachee unpick their behaviour in a certain situation.
As a coach, you will need to:

  • Ask the coachee to consider a time in which they believe they behaved admirably in a given context, and a situation in which they are less proud of how they behaved. Consider:
    • Consensus – Would others have behaved in the same way in this situation? (For example, if you found out they were about to get made redundant, their behaviour may be reasonable, even if they were not proud of it)
    • Consistency – Do they always behave like this in this situation? (Do they need to consider changing their default position?)
    • Distinctiveness – Do they behave like this in other situations?

By answering these questions, you can help the coachee analyse if their behaviour was context dependent (an external distribution) or something internal to do with them. They may want to consider how they can change their context (where possible) or how they can change they outlook/mood where necessary.

What do you believe you can’t do, however hard you try?

Ask the coachee to fill in the quadrants of the grid in Figure 14.2 with things they think they can and can’t do, according to whether they have or haven’t tried.

  Download Figure fig_14.2

Then analyse what the quadrants mean for the coachee:

  • The things they could do and have tried: These are their tried and tested staples, within their comfort zone. When they do these, they feel good and believe in themselves.
  • The things they could do and have not tried: These are things they may consider trying. They may enjoy them, and realise they can do more, increasing their self-efficacy.
  • The things they think they can’t do and have tried: Is it worth giving these another shot? Can they ask someone for help? Can they think of how they can overcome the difficulties?
  • The thing they think they can’t do and have not tried: How do they know they can’t do them if they haven’t tried? There are some things they may not particularly want to try – maybe jumping out of a plane doesn’t appeal – but you are still technically able to do it. In reality, there are very few things that they actually can’t do. Highlight that they are in control to decide if they want to try it or not.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

People who expect the best of themselves and others, often get the best out of themselves and others. People, who expect the worst, often get the worst. This is because one’s expectations can affect one’s mood and feelings of self-efficacy, which in turn dictate your behaviour and attitudes, which may well rub off on other people.

As a coach, you can address situations where you think the coachees are setting themselves up for failure in the following way:

  • Ask the coachee to think about the forthcoming project, task or meeting that they are nervous about. Can they increase their expectations of success?
  • The coachee notes down three ways they can increase their expectation of success. For example, by planning what they are going to say, practising saying it and getting feedback from a critical friend.
  • What can go wrong?
  • Have they planned ways of mitigating these?
  • Do they feel more positive going into the situation?
  • Do they feel upbeat?
  • What are their success criteria?

After their project, task or meeting, the coach asks the coachee to note down how satisfied they were with their performance.

  • Was it as successful as it could have been, given the circumstances? What could they have done differently?
  • Would it have improved the outcome?
  • How did they score out of 10 for each of their success criteria, where 1 is not well and 10 is excellent?

The concept of self-fulfilling prophecy can be applied to many situations. For example, does the coachee expect people to take notice of them when you speak? If not, then do not be surprised if they don’t!

Ask the coachee to think about what difference it would make, if they expected people to take notice of them. Who can give them feedback on their level of presence in specific situations? How could they speak with greater authority? For example, they could arm themselves with relevant facts and figures, presenting these in a relevant and engaging way, publicising their knowledge on this issue, etc.

Helping the coachee overcome procrastination

Procrastination is a common cause of setback. People procrastinate for three main reasons:

  • They don't really want to do the task. In this case the motivation for the task is usually external – i.e. they feel obliged to do it. Such obligations can be direct (expectations of a boss, or family members) or indirect (real or imaginary expectations they have internalised from other people).
  • They do want to do it, but other powerful forces prevent them. For example, they might really want to get fit, but can't get out from working long hours.
  • They do want to do it, but don't know where to start.

Useful questions to ask when you suspect the coachee doesn’t really want to do it:

  • What personal values does doing this evoke for you?
  • Who is telling you to do this?
  • What obligations are you feeling here?
  • For whose benefit do you want to do this?
  • How will doing this make you a better person/better manager etc.?

Useful questions to ask when other forces prevent them from getting on with it:

  • What could you stop doing that would allow you to give this a higher priority?
  • How could you make yourself more frequently attentive to (or more mindful of) this issue?
  • What could you do each day to ensure you made some progress?
  • What resources (e.g. other people) do you have to help you prioritise this?
  • What is your contract with yourself about this?

Useful questions to ask when they don't know where to start:

  • What would help you see the path more clearly?
  • Whose permission do you need to get started? (Often, realising that only their own permission is needed can be enough of a kick-start!)
  • What's the simplest first step you could take?
  • Imagine you had complete self-confidence about this. What would you do first?

General questions about procrastination:

  • When you took this project on, where did the energy come from?
  • What would enable you to inject a greater sense of energy into this project now?
  • What happens if you do nothing?
  • What are the benefits of doing nothing?
  • What would happen if you gave up on this goal?
  • Looking back from a year ahead, what will you wish you had done?
  • If you were to have made my day today, what would you have done?
  • What solutions have you been avoiding?
  • What decisions did you avoid this week?
  • What conversations have you avoided having recently?

When is the best time to procrastinate?

Procrastination is typically a repeating cycle with four stages:

  • Putting off something we aren’t positively motivated (energised) to do.
  • Feeling guilty.
  • Reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy.
  • Reduced energy, which makes us more likely to put things off…

Coaches can help coachees break this vicious cycle by first helping them to recognise it, then to develop strategies for addressing each stage. When people fail to break the cycle, it is often because they address only part of it – so the process continues as before.

Here are some practical approaches for addressing each stage.

Putting things off

Useful questions:

  • What are the common characteristics of things you put off?
  • What are your emotional responses when you are faced with such a task?

Useful strategies:

  • Having a process for recognising and acknowledging tasks you are likely to put off.
  • Alongside the traditional To Do list, create a Procrastination list, with three columns:
  • What I’m likely to procrastinate about.
  • The consequences (which may be a mixture of positive and negative).
  • My tactics for getting this task done.
  • The “quick peep” strategy – saying to yourself ‘I know I don’t want to do this, but I’ll take a look at it now, to see what’s involved’. Much of the time, it proves to be less difficult and less discomforting than you thought, so you get on with it anyway.
  • Saving up all the tasks you have low energy for and tackling them in one blitz on a Friday morning. Many people find that they are energised by the fact that they won’t have these things worrying them over the weekend. When this tactic becomes a habit, people typically find that they are also motivated by the reward of having Friday afternoon to concentrate more fully on tasks they particularly enjoy.

Feeling guilty

Useful questions:

  • How would you like to feel?
  • What small shift could make that happen?

Useful strategies:

  • Identifying the emotional triggers that make you feel guilty, and reframing these.
  • When I do get round to doing this, what can I add to improve the output, so that other people feel it was worth waiting for? (Envisioning positive reactions from others can help to motivate, too.)

Reduced self-esteem

Useful questions:

  • How will you feel about yourself once you’ve done this?
  • Who can you call upon for support and encouragement?

Useful strategies:

  • Analyse how the task plays to your strengths and weaknesses. Explore how applying your strengths to it could result in a better outcome.
  • Practice self-forgiveness. Tell yourself you are sorry and agree on what you are going to do to re-establish the balance of your self-respect.

Reduced energy

Useful questions:

  • How do you recharge your batteries in other circumstances?

Useful strategies:

  • Taking a brisk walk or doing some other exercise (physical exercise increases the flow of blood sugars to the brain and so makes us mentally energised).
  • Cultivate curiosity: What could I learn from tackling this in a different way from normal?
  • Link the task with a reward.
  • Do something that makes you laugh. Laughter produces endorphins, which give you an immediate energy ‘fix’.
  • Choose your time of day to tackle tasks you are likely to procrastinate about. We all have more energy at some times of the day than others, so adapting to your energy cycle makes sense.

When procrastination is habitual, it’s not easy to overcome. However, addressing it systematically creates much greater potential of positive change than working on it piecemeal.