Dealing With Disappointment

No matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you prepare, the universe likes to play tricks on people. If you expect to be bold and innovative, sometimes you will face failures, and you need to be able to accept that and move on. How you deal with disappointment, whether as an employee or a leader, is at least as important as how you aim for success.

Reading through Facebook after last Sunday’s Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore, it was obvious that even for runners who are used to training in an equatorial climate, the heat and humidity that day were unexpected. My own performance was well below normal even by my Southeast Asia race expectations, and though I thought it was just me, it clearly wasn’t. One pace runner I know, who had been training with his team for months, had to drop out of the pace group only a couple kilometers from the end, finally making it across the Finish Line with some friends who picked him up. By the time I came through the final 4 kilometers (which included a bridge that, from my perspective, was pretty much vertical), it looked like an episode of “The Walking Dead.” As David Wong, one of the 8,973 finishers, put it, “I believe a lot of us didn’t do well due to extremely hot weather. Despite putting in good effort, we didn’t meet our original targets and felt disappointed.”

Running SCMS

Still smiling, sort of, after 27km (photo by Andrew Lin Yikai)

The weekend’s disappointment was not just limited to “hobbyist” runners. In Fukuoka, Japan, SEA Games gold medalist Soh Rui Yong of Singapore had to drop out at the 12km point, largely due to an injury that had first popped up near the end of his months of training. Aboard the recovery bus he found Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto, the current world record holder for the men’s marathon. At Marathon Singapore, three of the top women marathoners in the world had dropped out by about the halfway point. These folks were extremely well prepared for what was coming, yet even they were not immune to twists of fate.

We sort of expect this in sports, where we know there are things we control and things we don’t, but you are going to see this at work, too, and you need to be ready for it. As an employee, you need to be able to pick yourself up and move forward, while as a leader, you need to give your people an opportunity to learn what they can and try again rather than holding them accountable for things they do not control.

As an employee, you are going to have times where all of your work feels wasted because of events outside your control. Maybe it’s a snowstorm that keeps you from getting to the conference you have been preparing for, maybe it’s an illness that causes you to miss a hackathon you know will help your company, maybe it is something as simple as a computer crashing during your presentation to the big boss. Once these events have happened, they have happened, and no amount of wishing they hadn’t is going to change that. Focus your attention instead on what you can do going forward. Can the work you did still be used for another event? Can you schedule something new that will fill the gap that was left? How does this change your plans, and what can you do to still reach the goal you had? It is natural to feel upset when things do not go according to your well thought out plan, and you should let yourself feel that frustration, but rather than worrying about what just happened, try to focus more on what is going to happen as you move forward. The work you have done up until now is rarely wasted, so try to find the value in it and put it to use in a different way.

Though we keep talking here about things “outside your control,” there are lots of cases where you can (and should) have a backup plan. If things come crashing down, look at the situation and see if there is anything you can learn for next time, something you would do differently. If an event is important enough, try to predict what is most likely to go wrong, and have a way to address it. For example, when I conduct a workshop I have my slides on multiple media and stored in the cloud, so a tech failure (or accidentally leaving my laptop on the plane) does not ruin everything. But there is no way to plan for every contingency; if you spend your life trying to make backup plans for everything, you will never get anything done. Sometimes, too, there is no alternative. Just as there is no backup plan for running a marathon when you get an injury right before the race, if you are supposed to be giving a talk somewhere, and your taxi is in an accident on the way, there really is not a Plan B for that. It is what it is.

When you are in a leadership role, and your employees face this kind of disappointment, how you handle it can create an effect that lasts a long time. When people are already feeling down, you piling onto that with criticism is not going to help; if you do this, expect to see their engagement levels drop. A supportive attitude from you will boost performance much more than coming crashing down on them. If you hold them responsible for things beyond their control, you will create an environment where they are afraid to make a move because they cannot control every factor, and as a result you will see no progress in their work. Give them the space to do the learning discussed above, and focus your attention on what (if anything) to do differently next time, rather than on trying to assign blame this time. It’s one thing if people are clearly negligent or incompetent, but it’s another thing entirely when unpredictable factors take over. You need to be able to differentiate between problems due to things they should have foreseen, and problems due to things they can’t.

As Soh Rui Yong wrote on his Facebook page in the days before his race, “Be prepared for anything, but expect nothing.” We have to realize that, while technology gives us the illusion of having control over our lives, the universe has not agreed to play by the same rules. Disappointments will occur, no matter how hard we work and train and prepare, and the best measure of a person is how they pick themselves up and move forward when that happens.

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