Dealing with Disappointment

Leading in today’s competitive business market requires thinking and reaching beyond the norm. It requires leaders that give and gather the best: intellect, passion and commitment. Leaders know that they can’t achieve desired results without the engagement of others.

We require vendors to fulfill contracts as agreed. We need co-workers to complete assignments and meet deadlines. We anticipate partners will do their fair share. However, sometimes people fail to do so. Let downs occur. Expectations are unmet.

Great leaders will tell you that some of their best improvements and growth have resulted from a response to a disappointment. As painful as they may be, disappointments can be invaluable tools for lessons learned and wisdom gained. The critical question is how to deal with disappointments when they occur.

The Sources of Disappointment

While leaders are in a position to enjoy various kinds of success, they are also subject to disappointment from several areas of work life. Setbacks may be caused by factors that seem to be out of their control. However, patterns and avoidable issues need to be addressed.

Some disappointments come from your people. You counted on them and they let you down. A deadline was missed, an action item was not pursued or a possible solution not considered. Disappointment can turn to resentment if your people indicate apathy toward the misfortune.

Most employees will feel bad about disappointing their leader. It was not their intention. Be mindful of the fact that although you may bear the brunt of the disappointment, your people are often disappointed in themselves.

Other disappointments come to you through the company or its upper management. You may have been passed up for a promotion, denied the requested resources to accomplish a goal or given news that the company won’t be pursuing what looked like a promising venture.

These are not unlike the disappointments you may cause your people. They experience the same types of letdowns, often as the result of your decisions. What could you have done differently? Change what you can, and accept what you can’t. Practice self-compassion, and avoid self-pity.

The best leaders recognize that there are a number of ways they can bear the responsibility for disappointing their employees. Leaders can unknowingly let their people down by:

  • Communicating insufficiently
  • Not providing proper training or resources to get the job done
  • Making poor or uninformed decisions
  • Insufficient project management or follow-up
  • Having poor people skills
  • Behaving in ways that demotivate or disengage
  • Not having the technical ability to solve problems

Smart leaders take steps to raise the bar on their leadership.

Unfortunate Responses to Disappointment

All humans are hard-wired to respond to stimuli with feelings first, analysis second. When we act on our emotions, before we allow time to think, we respond unfavorably to disappointment. Unfortunately, emotionally driven types of responses are common for some leaders, according to leadership expert Peter Bregman’s Harvard Business Review article.

One such response for a disappointed leader is to go into attack mode. The temper rises and hurtful things are spewed. The attack is based on blame. Someone needs to be called out when a leader can’t look internally to their possible contribution to the setback. The underlying goal is self-preservation by causing a subordinate to pay the price. Sometimes damaging words are too extreme to be called back or reconciled. Relationships then become irreparable.

Another leadership response to disappointment is withdrawal. If a leader bears shame or deep regret, they may shut themselves in and avoid contacting the people they feel they’ve let down. They bear the pain alone, unable to deal with the humiliation or regret.

Perhaps they feel that things will heal and return to normal if enough time is allowed to pass, but this is rarely effective. Avoidance is no way to lead and can cripple other aspects of management. Withdrawal is not the example of strength and confidence employees need to see in their leader.

Yet another unfortunate response to disappointment is apathy. Leaders who can’t deal with letdowns rarely continue in their roles for long. They resign themselves to the thought that their position is compromised, and nothing can make up for the mistake. They stop caring altogether, waiting for the end.

Signs of apathy are easy to spot. The leader’s spirit and demeanor drop off significantly. This not only endangers their role, but the roles of everyone counting on them to lead and get things done. The team’s effectiveness and future grow dim until significant changes in personnel are made.

Of course, the severity of these unfortunate responses depends on the seriousness of the disappointment. Everyone has differing emotional tolerances and levels of perspective. Low measures of each cause unfortunate responses that bring regret to everyone.

Proper Responses to Disappointment

Leaders who provide constructive responses to disappointment reflect an honorable character worthy of following, describes Robin Camarote in Inc.com. This involves learning the skills of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. An experienced executive coach is a great resource to help you in this area.

When your people let you down, make it your focus to identify the issues and help them improve. The immediate desire to vent or convict people is damaging and works against you in the long run. Not many employees have a desire to work on solutions after they’re condemned.

Expressing disappointment is very acceptable, as long as it’s done in a way that inspires corrective action and positive attitudes. Calmness and objective reasoning are key. Working through solutions is best done directly with your people, engaging and helping them.

If you treat the situation as the problem, and not the employees, the team will make corrections at an amazing pace. Of course, if certain people have fallen short of expectations a one-on-one approach is called for. A problem employee may need an attitude change, a role change or an employment change, depending on the nature of the issue.

When the company or its top leaders disappoint you, make sure you assess yourself first. Identify your motive, attitude and goals before expressing concerns. Presenting a firm, but professionally positive front is the only way to arrive at a beneficial outcome. Anything less makes you appear to be the problem, and then your problems are just beginning.

Leaders who regret disappointing their people need a humble and transparent approach in order to set things straight. Assess your contribution to the problem and the reasons for it. This is best accomplished with the assistance of another trusted perspective, such as a co-leader or coach.

Improvement is the goal. Devise a plan to address shortcomings and unify your people. Then show them how you’re going to help them succeed. This is often the most difficult type of disappointment for leaders to overcome, but the rewards for your accountability are unlimited.

Establish Your Leadership Brand

Product branding is a familiar concept where product identity, reputation and differentiation are promoted. In an ideal world, a product’s image is established in positive ways, and the market is made aware of its presence. While it seems natural to brand products, leaders often don’t recognize how advantageously this principle can be applied to their careers.

A significant aspect of leadership success pertains to how the leader is perceived and accepted in their role. Favorable impressions are a huge part of the human experience, especially when applied to relationship-based activities such as leading people in an organizational setting. Positive impressions enhance a leader’s impact and offer more growth opportunities than neutral or negative impressions.

Leaders, while valuing the need to perform well and meet commitments, also benefit by establishing a solid personal brand. This allows them to make the most of their skills and potential as they advance their career path. There are several key areas that formulate your leadership brand and, when developed well, can take you to new heights.

What Constitutes a Leadership Brand?

When it comes to brands, products have much in common with leaders. Look at yourself as a product, because in essence, you are. Marketers illustrate their product’s worthiness, offering solutions that couldn’t be obtained without the product. Leaders are in a position to do the same. A product stands on a brand that makes a mark for its value. That’s exactly what successful leaders do as well. Leaders with strong brands are sought for their value because that’s what organizations need.

A strong reputation is the fundamental foundation. In part, your brand is what you’ve done, what you’re capable of doing and what you stand for. Consistent performance and accomplishment build great reputations. This creates a brand that proves a leader’s capabilities or expertise. Leaders with strong brands don’t need to search for opportunities; opportunities come to them.

A leadership brand establishes your voice, as described by Paul Larson in his book Find Your Voice as a Leader (Aviva Publishing, 2016). Leaders with a developed voice have a presence: a distinctive quality that makes them stand out.

Your brand creates a following. As the saying goes, leaders don’t lead unless someone follows. People want to be associated with the benefits that come with success. Leaders with a strong brand represent success, attraction and influence. Employees know that a great leadership brand brings gains to everyone.

If you have a solid leadership brand, you fashion your influence in ways that create a lasting legacy. This maximizes your impact, not only while you are on board, but long after you’re gone. You’ll find nothing more gratifying than an organization that owes its success to your legacy. Does your brand have the potential of doing that?

The Building Block: Behavior

Leaders are primarily known for how they act, especially in tough and trying situations. This goes both positively and negatively. Leaders with strong personal brands have honed their personal skills to be reliable and trustworthy under pressure. This includes being calm, reasonable and poised. People put their faith in leaders who are a rock in a storm because this represents safety and security.

Another aspect of strong brand behavior is genuineness. Leaders who demonstrate transparency and humility are trustworthy. Their brand stands out as a pleasant departure from a leadership norm that lacks these traits. Similarly, a brand of refinement and integrity is admirable. If you are a leader known for doing the right thing, being responsible for your actions, taking the heat and issuing credit, then your brand will rise to the top.

Having confidence in your abilities, based on your competence and experience, is a great brand booster. People can see this in how you speak and carry yourself. However, if this carries over into overconfidence, pride or arrogance, your brand gets tarnished. An experienced executive coach can advise you on the image you portray, and help you reverse any adverse behaviors.

Other personality traits can help to build a solid leadership brand. Leaders who are firm, but fair, earn high praise. People want the ability to do their jobs well and understanding when conditions prevent it. Fair treatment, acknowledgment and reward are the benefits employees receive from strong leadership brands.

Additionally, a leadership style that is prepared and knowledgeable fashions a respected brand. People want leaders who know what they’re doing and can anticipate things that go south; because they do. Being teachable is an extra benefit that lets people know you are real, can relate and don’t pretend to have all the answers. Few things darken a leadership brand more than a self-professed know-it-all.

The Art of Appearance

Like products, leaders convey their brand through their physical packaging. Visual impressions are powerful, as people are wired to make judgements from what they observe. An impressive appearance goes a long way toward a positive leadership brand. As with behavior, the greatest appearance influence is generated by the most positive presentation.

The most immediate visual impact comes from being clean cut and well dressed. This shows an attention to detail and a sense of discipline, two traits that aid in competence, decision making and responsibility. People see a leader who attempts to look their best as someone who applies themselves and reaches for the best.

Leadership expert Dianna Booher, in her book Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), suggests body language is another brand-related factor. It shows in how you carry yourself and respond to the many stimuli around you. Staying in control of your emotions indicates internal strength and good self-awareness. This conveys a rational and subjective command of situations, boosting your leadership brand with the trust of your people behind you.

How you keep your office space also discloses your level of discipline and self-management. A disheveled desk implies disorganization and an inability to stay on top of things. While a perfectly sparkling desk may indicate you are underutilized, you want to have the signs of being busy, yet not inundated beyond your limits. Again, visual perceptions are powerful influencers in how your people receive your brand.

In addition to physical appearance, your emotional appearance weighs into establishing a strong leadership brand. Several personality traits are especially helpful for positive image building (besides being the right way to lead people). Leaders with a positive outlook, framed by good energy and passion, are greatly appreciated. They influence their people positively and inspire them to do their best work. This is a fantastic brand to stand by.

The Criticality of Communication

Leaders who are good communicators build some of the strongest personal brands. Communication is the lifeblood of every organization. It must be promoted and championed by the leader. Companies are handicapped by poor communication, and their brand is tarnished by underperformance. If a company’s brand is tarnished, so is the brand of the leader.

How a leader communicates reflects on their character and competence. Clear enunciation, authoritative delivery and considerate expression all help form a solid brand. In addition, communicating with emotional control and professionalism forges the trust of your people. They have the security of knowing they’re in good hands.

The best leadership communication is based on facts, not speculation. Speaking knowledgably and objectively gains credibility. Wishful emotion and baseless assumptions don’t build a brand. Credible leaders muster the most influence because they gather the most followers. If you do your homework and prepare thoughtful statements, delivered with insight and diplomacy, your leadership brand will be boosted.

A leader’s communication style also impacts the standing of their brand. A trained executive coach can help you with this. Good communicators explain things well. Speaking in brief segments is less confusing. Going back to summarize significant points helps everyone get on the same page. Your leadership brand will benefit by the engagement of your people when you communicate.

Ask questions to make sure your listeners grasp your message. Also, be open to questions from your audience. This conveys a desire to meet their needs and helps them participate in the dialogue. The goal is not to simply get a message out into the open, but to add value to your people by giving them information they need. Leaders who are known for this have solid personal brands.

Speaking skills need to transfer to large group sessions as well, according to Booher. Having a positive, authoritative presence builds an admirable brand. Your people are looking for hope and security in what you say, even if the news is difficult. Putting their interests first positions you to be highly regarded and branded well.

Relying on Relationships

Leadership is essentially the ability to achieve goals through effective relationships. The leaders who have the greatest relational skills have the greatest chance for success and the best foundation for a solid brand. Is your brand known for valuing relationships and enhancing the work lives of your people?

Relational leaders have strong personal brands because their people feel valued and satisfied. Employees enjoy working for a leader who treats them like a partner, like an appreciated resource. This promotes a feeling of security. Leaders who offer these kinds of relationships have a highly regarded brand and benefit in many ways.

Leaders with relational skills want to connect with and engage their people. This involves showing an interest in them, and seeking to understand their hopes and concerns. Leaders who can dialog with active listening build relationships.

Asking questions and actively listening demonstrates interest in others and signals that their thoughts are worth knowing. Be inclusive, asking for feedback from everyone at some point or another. You honor people by appreciating their ideas and solutions to problems.

A key factor is to be approachable and reasonable. If your people know they can come to you and build on a relationship, they will trust you and value your leadership. When employees are comfortable and satisfied with their leader, there are no limits to what they can accomplish.

Inspire your people with a positive, empowering approach. Delegate as much authority as their level can accommodate. Celebrate their victories.