WORKPLACE / JAN. 13, 2015
version 2, draft 2

How Do You Handle Setbacks At Work

As Robert Burns famously said "the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley". Whilst failure is an almost inevitable part of life, and especially working life, it has undergone something of a transformation in the past few years. Whereas once upon a time, failure may have been the end of your career, it’s now increasingly likely to be seen as something you can learn from.

Indeed, there is almost a notion that if you’re not failing, then you’re not pushing the boundaries of your work far enough, either as an individual or collectively as an organisation.

Hopefully, it goes without saying, of course that the key to failing well is the ability to learn from the experience and become a better person as a result. It’s crucial therefore to be able to handle setbacks and failure in the right way, treating them as a chance to learn new things and improve your skills. If you treat failure as an overwhelming reflection on you as a person, however, and you’re much more likely to fail in the wrong way and try and palm off the setback on external factors.

Handling setbacks well

This is highlighted by a groundbreaking study by Joseph Marocchio of a group of professional adults undertaking a course in computing. Before they began the course, each student was encouraged to believe various things about their learning ability. So some of the participants would be led to beieve that no matter how much they studied, their abilities would be pretty much static. By contrast, other members of the class were led to believe that with the right training, their skills would be improved.

The group of students who were told that their talents were relatively fixed tended to react awfully to their mistakes. With each mistake, their confidence dropped a little bit further, until by the end of the course they were pretty dejected by the whole process.

The other group was the complete opposite. Remember, they’d been led to believe that the classes would shape their skills, and they were found to regard any mistakes they made as a crucial part of their learning and development. Therefore, their confidence (and ability) rose throughout the course.

This is known in the literature as the Pygmalion Effect and was something coined by Lenore Jacobsen and Robert Rosenthal from Harvard.  They found that students would usually perform much better when their teachers thought they could achieve great things.  For instance, when random pupils were classed as ’bloomers’, they fulfilled the prophesy and became top students.

The moral of the story, therefore, is to approach mistakes and setbacks as part of a learning process and not as a reflection on us as people.

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