Failure can take a tremendous psychological toll. Whether it’s rejection from a client prospect, an embarrassing slip during a presentation or losing a business, personal setbacks can have traumatic, long-lasting effects on a career.

Research has shown that most of those who fail at a task tend to rate the physical obstacles as being dimensionally larger and farther out of reach than they actually are. Left unchecked, this unconscious processing of setbacks can have devastating effects as the more you experience failure the more likely you are to scale back your efforts, ultimately throwing-in the towel.

Psychologists refer to this as “learned helplessness” and psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman has been studying the phenomenon for decades. Essentially, learned helplessness is a form of psychological paralysis that stifles our ability to recover from a setback because we drive ourselves into a pessimistic spiral through negative self-talk and personal guilt. Seligman says the best way to inoculate people from the spiral is to teach optimism.

There are certainly those among us who have a natural resilience. Just about every successful entrepreneur I’ve worked with or interviewed has resilience built into their DNA. It’s a part of their personality and often the key ingredient to their success. For many of us, this resilience doesn’t come naturally. However, there is a solution. Seligman says that just as helplessness is learned, so to can optimism.

In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Seligman lays out an argument for why optimism is so critical to business success and how to develop it within ourselves and our employees. According to Seligman, optimists view setbacks as: temporary, local, and changeable. In other words, optimists understand setbacks are typically moments in time that can be remedied and may even lead to positive future outcomes. The key is their belief in being able to take control of how they react and respond to the situation. He believes there are five building blocks for developing resilience:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Seligman and his team have actually built a curriculum around these building blocks that is being tested by the Department of Defense. So, based on these concepts, when faced with a setback or coaching an employee on handling a setback, here are a few things to consider:

Pay Attention to Your State of Mind . Self-awareness is critical to reframing how you view setbacks. It’s important to be aware of how you naturally react to setbacks: the way you think, act and make decisions in the heat of the moment can be dangerous. The idea is to be ready to take steps to counter any negative self-talk or excessive personal blame that may slide you into the pessimistic spiral. When hit with a setback, always stop to and check yourself. Be sure to pull yourself out of emotions of moment and check to see if your thoughts and actions are constructive and not destructive.   

Be Your Own Motivational Speaker. The reason motivational speakers get paid the big bucks is because they know how to make us feel good. Try to replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Negative self-talk only serves to catastrophize the situation, which serves no positive purpose and does nothing to remedy the setback.

Focus on the positives however few and far between they may be. Look at the opportunities and play-up the notion of overcoming challenge. Find the lessons learned and embrace the opportunity to make positive change for a better future.

Seek Support. One of the most powerful buffers to stress is social support, yet far too few of us seek it out when we really need it. For many it’s tempting to crawl into a shell and hide after experiencing a setback. However, being alone with your thoughts can feed your inclination to self-blame and create a narrative that may be skewed from reality.

We are all victims of living in our own heads, so getting an outside perspective can shed light on aspects of the situation that may have been obscured by your emotions. Always seek counsel from a friend who can provide honest feedback and positive solutions for moving forward. 

 

 

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and the new on-line course The YOU Plan for Career Change on Udemy. Dr. Woody is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership. Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook.