What to Do When Your Team Fails

When you suffer a defeat, the tendency to want to withdraw is powerful. That is especially true when the setback occurs in public. The only trouble is that if you are a manager, the last thing you can do is withdraw. You have other responsibilities.

This thought came to me as I was watching the behavior of losing coaches in the NCAA basketball tourney. The experienced ones know how to accept defeat and to a coach they all say they want to get back into the locker room with their players. This is not a hide-and-seek game they play with the media. It seems sincere.

The lesson for managers is that when a team you lead falls to achieve a goal, the time for you to exert your presence is now, not later. You may be feeling awful, even worse than your employees, but you need to spend time with your team. Your own career may even be on the line and that is all the more reason to delve into details with your team. Here are some suggestions.

Affirm their contributions. When good employees put themselves out to achieve a milestone they have a personal stake in the outcome. If the team falls short, then they feel personally dejected. The leader who spends time with individual employees is one who can buck up the entire team.

Pick apart the mistakes. Focus first on process. Mistakes were made. Figure what went wrong. Then assign responsibility. But do it with a spirit of investigation, not finger pointing. When people are down there is a tendency to point fingers. That will do little to diagnose the problems.

Discuss what to do next. Not everything likely went wrong. It is important to diagnose the positives and decide how they can be repeated. There may be a feeling that you have to begin from scratch and do it all over again. That is not always the case. And if it is so, you are still ahead of where you were earlier because you have the experience of what works and what does not.

Follow through. Leverage what you have learned from the review process to figure out next steps. Very often the manager will need to find more resources or maybe more time. Sometimes the team may need new blood. Whatever is necessary the manager must plan for it and put the plan into action.

These steps are a form of an after action review, something our military does after every major engagement. But what is different is the investment of the leader in his or her people. A winning team needs a coach less when they are rolling and more when they are losing. The same applies to management. A manager's job is to keep things running smoothly but when there are bumps in the road, it falls to the manager to smooth them over.

Being available for your team that has suffered defeat is not an excuse for going soft. The expectation for success remains. What the team does next matters and it will only be able to fulfill that expectation if the manager steps forward to do whatever necessary to focus the team on the goal and to provide them with what they need to succeed. Especially when what they may need is a strong manager.

Perhaps there is comfort in the words of the Roman poet, Horace, who wrote,"Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it."

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world's top 25 leadership experts. John's new book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John's website, www.johnbaldoni.com

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