Dealing with Disappointment

  • 6 mins read

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.

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