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How to Control Your Emotions After You Fail

Everyone makes mistakes, and, typically, emotional turmoil follows. Here's how you can channel those negative feelings into an opportunity to learn.

As a dynamic manager leading your company, you will invariably make a few mistakes along the way. 

It happens to all of us, from missed deadlines and stupid emails to ruffled feathers. (If these things don't happen to you at times, start to worry). But the deeper problem is that no one really likes to fail. So when we do, we often miss key lessons.

Just look at the many expressions associated with mistakes. We speak of people eating "crow," "humble pie," their "hat", and of course their "words." Mistakes are hard to digest, and may literally make us sick to our stomach. As Kathryn Schulz states in her splendid book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, “If being right is succulent, being wrong runs a narrow, unhappy gamut from nauseating to worse than death.” 

But how exactly should you handle mistakes?  

First, generally, you need to accept that some people are better at their chosen game than you are, in the sense of scoring higher on average.  So, at times you will lose. Second, recognize that how you handle and channel your emotions after you have lost is at least as important for long run success. Business careers are not sprints, but marathons--continual learning is the key.

So, imagine you have made a big mistake. Let's go to that very hard moment when you have realized that mistake and your heart drops into your stomach. Here's how you should process:

1. Accept that failure produces negative emotions, in you and others, not unlike burning your finger at the stove or tripping on the ice.  Hopefully you are still alive and just bruised, so that you can extract a few lessons for yourself and others. 

2. Identify the mix of emotions in yourself and others. Are you frustrated? Desperate and angry? Bored? Or confused? Believe it or not, neurologically speaking, these deep emotions actually have adaptive value. So yes, simply knowing which of those feelings you are experiencing is a step towards getting over them.

3. Let go…for a while. Give these mixed emotions some rein, since they will probably initiate some self-correction on their own steam. They set in motion actions and reflections that on their own will start to improve things. For example, frustration leads to change, confusion to search for meaning, and despair or boredom to choosing a new line of work, perhaps.

4. Redirect your energy. As Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology has shown during decades of research, the key is to focus on what is specifically changeable in the problem at hand. Get concrete and zero in on what could be changed the next time. Reframing your thinking in optimistically so that you can discover ways toward finding solutions is the key to discovering the silver linings that hides every failure. 

Focus only on things you can control and just try to accept the uncontrollable, although a slight illusion of control can actually be beneficial to your mental health (but not your decisions). And most importantly, don’t indulge in general negativity about yourself, your co-workers, or the world at large!

 

 

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Last updated: Aug 14, 2012

PAUL SCHOEMAKER | Research Director, Wharton School

Paul J. H. Schoemaker is the founder and chairman of Decision Strategies International. A speaker, professor, and entrepreneur, Schoemaker is research director at the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at Wharton, where he teaches strategic decision making. His latest book is Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future.




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