Leadership: Dealing With Disappointment

benbuie | 1/30/13

I really value people who work hard and smart. I love to reward them. One way I reward them, being that I work with a lot of volunteers, is through Linkedin. When I work with someone who always delivers on what they say, and their deliverable is excellent, I make it a point to post a recommendation. If you’ve worked with me, you may have received, or will receive one of these.

So, when things are going well, positive reinforcement is key, but my question is, how do you motivate someone to do better when they’re doing less than perfect work? In other words, I’m trying to think of ways to manage disappointment without demotivating my team.

At a recent event, a successful entrepreneur said he can’t say that his company is doing anything excellent right now. I’ll keep him anonymous and call him Mayson because he said that he wouldn’t usually say that in public. I understand why: he is less than excited about his companies combined work, but saying that would only hurt the motivation of his team.

From an outside perspective, Mason’s company is killing it, but through his perfectionist eyes, nothing is going as well as it could. I relate to him a lot. I run or help run a couple clubs on campus, I’m launching a startup, and I volunteer a good amount of time at my church. In each of these endeavors I find myself in a leadership position with the challenge of motivating people to do stuff for free. So, after hearing Mason express his feelings, I decided to figure out a way to manage the disappointment of imperfection while still inspiring people to work harder and smarter than they ever have.

I came up with what I call the 4 steps of accountability:

1. Define clear expectations at the outset.

This could take some time and planning, but if your team doesn’t know what is expected of them, it is really hard to perform. These expectations don’t have to be a strict job description, this is rarely possible in a startup, but they do need to outline the culture and values you expect from people. Think of this as your pre-emptive strike on low performance.

Hopefully you won’t need step two, but inevitably disappointment will come and one of your volunteers, employees, or teams with drop the ball. If so, do this first:

2. Make sure that everything is alright with the person or team and ask if there is anything you can do to help.

Sometimes life happens! Despite a person’s best efforts, the failure may have been outside of their control. It is too easy to jump the gun and come down on someone who had no control over the outcome. In addition, many times problems come from process not people. In other words, the failure could have been caused by management or a lack of resources.

If we don’t first “seek to understand,” in the words of Steven R Covey, then we risk demoralizing and demotivating those we lead. Remember that leadership is all about the individual. If people think you don’t care about them, you’ve got bigger problems than motivation.

So what if the disappointments continue?

3. Let them know that you noticed the failure and together create a plan to fix the situation together.

At this point I’m usually frustrated; however, getting angry isn’t going to help anyone. In the past, I’ve just been tempted to let a couple shortcomings slide. Not good. In addition to knowing that you care, people need be accountable. Hopefully this step allows us to accomplish both of those things in a non-threatening way.

If it happens again?

4. Let them know that if something doesn’t change, you’ll have to make a change.

I love the line from Princess Bride, “Life isn’t fair, anyone who tells you different is either lying or selling something.” This step seems harsh, but if you let too much slide, you’ll ruin your own reputation.

5. Make a change.

I’m interested to hear if you agree or disagree with these steps of accountability. Email me at mail [at] benbuie [dot] com.

About the Author

Ben currently works as a contract web developer and business consultant in Boulder, Colorado.

His passion for entrepreneurship led him to study business and learn to code. Although he never anticipated working on the web, Ben has spent the past 9 years learning everything he could about building and operating websites and web assets.

When not at work, Ben spends a lot of his time with family. He is married to a “beautiful” woman and they are raising 4 energetic boys. In his spare time he loves keeping up with technology, playing guitar, eating Sweet Cow ice cream, and painting (although he has very little time for painting these days). Other than that, Ben is a supporter of freedom and liberty, a fluent speaker of Russian, and he tries to be a humble follower of Jesus.

Read more about Ben.