Illustration of people getting back onto a horse after falling
5-second summary
  • Failures and setbacks can destroy a team’s confidence, which, in turn, can impact their performance.
  • Leaders can help people power through a crisis by employing three mental safeguards that keep the team from falling into a shame spiral.
  • Once the dust has settled, teams should do some guided reflection to help them regain their confidence.

A failed campaign, a lost client, a canceled project, a service outage… setbacks like these take a toll on your team’s collective confidence. But unless you’re prepared to up and walk off the job, you have to get back on that horse and keep moving forward.

So wouldn’t it be great to move forward with confidence?

That’s exactly what Dr. Nate Zinsser has been helping people do for over 30 years. As a psychologist specializing in performance, he runs the confidence training program for the U.S. Army’s academy at West Point and also works with athletes. According to “Doc Z” (as the cadets call him), confidence is every bit as important for us desk-jockeys as it is to a professional golfer or an infantry soldier.

Zinsser’s book, “The Confident Mind,” shows individuals how to mentally reframe failures in a constructive way. It turns out, leaders can use the same tactics to help their teams get back into the groove after a rough patch.

I sat down with Doc Z to discuss how his bounce-back formula translates to the corporate world. It all boils down to emphasizing little wins, keeping everyone’s mental game on point, and incorporating the right team rituals.

If you think you’re not an athlete, think again

We often describe teams or individuals in terms of being low- or high-performing on the job. Zinsser challenges clients to take that concept a step further and start thinking of their as a performance, even if they’re not a performer, per se, such as an athlete or entertainer.

“I call office workers ‘white-collar athletes’ because they are indeed contending for a prize,“ says Zinsser. “The prize might be bringing a product to market, producing an advertising campaign, getting a promotion, delivering great customer service, you name it. If you’re contending for a prize, then by definition, you’re an athlete.”

So what happens your performance isn’t what you’d hoped it would be?

fun fact

The English word “athlete” comes from the Greek words athlos and athlon, meaning “contest” and “prize,” respectively.

Short-term recovery: score a “first victory”

Every team has episodes of lousy performance no matter how competent they are. The question is how quickly you can get over the failure and get back to performing well. Step one is to score what Zinsser calls a “first victory”: a quick win that boosts your confidence enough to get through the rest of the day, or even just the next few minutes. As he reminds his clients and cadets, the real victory is your victory over fear and doubt.

When you’re in the middle of a failure-in-progress, you might have to look for a victory that seems trivial. Just as a tennis player might feel good about getting to that next ball in time after giving up a point, an operations team might score a win by getting that first server back online during an outage.

Whatever win your team scores, call it out. Give them some encouragement so they can finish the task at hand.

Other setbacks come as a single, momentary event where there is no task at hand to complete. Remember that your team’s first victory doesn’t have to be directly related to the failure. If your sales team just lost out on a major contract with a new client, upselling an existing client on a new feature still counts as a win.

The real victory is your victory over fear and doubt.

– Dr. Nate Zinsser

Steve Goldsmith, Head of Product at Atlassian, has seen this first-hand. In 2018, Atlassian decided to exit the workplace communications market and sunset Stride, our group chat product. At that time, Steve was in charge of all things Stride. For his team, the first victory was simply hearing that there was still a place for them inside the company.

“The day after the announcement, leaders from other products groups were on-site pitching people to join their teams,” he recalls. They didn’t just pass around a sign-up sheet. We’re talking about passionate recruitment calls from Atlassian leaders who were excited to bring in members of the freshly-disbanded Stride team. “It made a huge difference emotionally,” Steve says.

How to overcome impostor syndrome and discover the brag-worthy you

Long-term recovery: 3 ways to win the mental game

Building on positive psychology, Zinsser describes three mental “safeguards” that can help people process their inevitable imperfections quickly and get back on track. Here’s how to put it into practice with your team.

1. Treat the failure as temporary

Treating the mistake as a one-time event helps keep the team from psyching themselves out to the point where they’re paralyzed or falling into a shame spiral – both of which usually make the situation even worse. This is especially important when you’re in the midst of a failure-in-progress or in the immediate aftermath.

That said, do take time to reflect later. Look for lessons you can take away from the experience, or patterns that might reveal a larger issue you need to address.

“In the moment, you’ve got to treat the mistake as temporary so you can keep going,” Zinsser says. “But once you have the luxury of time and a little space, then it is, of course, incumbent upon you to figure out if there’s a lesson to be learned. You may not like the lesson, but you have to look for it anyway.”

2. Isolate the failure to its true context

People fall into the trap of thinking that because a failure happened in one context, it will also happen in all other contexts. This is a) simply not true, and b) an example of a cognitive distortion called catastrophizing.

When you reflect on the failure with your team, prompt them to think through the particular place, people, and events surrounding it. “Keep your mistakes in the places where they occurred so you’re not carrying them with you everywhere,” Zinsser advises. “If something happened in one aspect of your day, that doesn’t mean it’s going to bleed out and affect your other professional competencies.”

3. De-personalize the failure

Imagine a surgeon who doesn’t make an incision perfectly. They don’t have the luxury of stopping to wonder whether they chose the right career, or even whether they’ll be able to finish the procedure successfully. They have to be able to acknowledge the mistake, then get on with delivering a great outcome for their patient.

Your job as a leader is to get your team thinking like that surgeon. Help them internalize the idea that the mistake isn’t representative of who they are as people. “Otherwise,” Zinsser cautions, “people start to question whether they’re the right person for the job, which opens the door for a flurry of self-doubt.” (Impostor syndrome, anyone?)

Tips for putting it into practice

When your team is mid-crisis, coach them on using the mind-body connection to their advantage. Deep breaths pull more oxygen in, which then transfers to your brain. And because an oxygen-rich brain is a calmer brain, this helps you think more clearly and panic less. This isn’t hocus-pocus – it’s been validated by clinical studies over and over.

Reflect later on root causes and lessons learned. Remember Doc Z’s cue to tell yourself the failure is a fluke so you can get through the moment without collapsing? That’s just damage control. Once you’ve had a chance to catch your collective breath, it’s important to step back and look for patterns.

For digging into root causes, try the “5 Whys” technique. You might feel like a toddler again, asking “why” on repeat. But this is far more productive.

For teasing out lessons learned, try the after-action review worksheet from Zinsser’s book. (He kindly let us reproduce it in digital form for Work Life readers – download it here!) The worksheet guides you through an analysis of what went well, what didn’t, and what you can do to be better prepared next time.

Incorporate a “highlight reel” ritual into your team meetings using an exercise Zinsser calls E-S-P. Take five minutes to identify one instance of high-quality effort, one success, and one area where the team made progress toward a goal. It’s OK if these are small things. It’s still a deposit in your team’s emotional bank account.

As the team reflects, either individually or as a group, encourage them to adopt an attitude of curiosity. Posing hypothetical questions like “I wonder how much better we’d do next time if…” or “Might changing X or Y help us avoid similar problems in the future?”

To put some structure around this, try the pre-mortem technique. You and your team will brainstorm all the ways you could fail, as well as all the ways you could win big. Then you’ll identify what you need to do to avoid catastrophe and become a smashing success.

Using premortems to calm your nerves and nail that big project
what’s your take?

Leaders like you are swapping tips for helping their teams bounce back. Join the discussion on Atlassian Community.

Leaders, this all starts with you

None of these techniques will work unless you model them. You have to keep your own head in the game while a failure is unfolding so you can coach your team to keep going until the moment of crisis has passed. Compartmentalization is your friend in that moment. And later, when you sit down together to process what happened, you have to demonstrate both compassion and curiosity to keep the discussion from devolving into finger-pointing and angst.

But you don’t have to do it alone. Depending on the magnitude of the situation, bringing in leaders from up the chain can have a big impact. When Steve looks back on the Stride shutdown, he gives Atlassian’s co-CEO, Mike Cannon-Brookes, a lot of credit for the team’s swift recovery.

“It starts with people on the team realizing they are truly valued and appreciated, and you can’t do that on an island. It really does start from the top,” Steve says, referring to Mike flying across the Pacific to deliver the news in person. “He looked people in the eye and said ‘We’re going to move on together, as a team.’“

Your goal as a leader shouldn’t be to prevent failures and setbacks entirely. Occasional failures are healthy! They’re a sign that your team is challenging themselves. The key is to frame them in a way that encourages your team to get back on that horse and get better, together.

How to help your team recover after a setback