Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Helping Your Team To Find The Silver Lining When Things Go Wrong

Most of us are familiar with the fact that the more we focus on something, like a particular brand of car or advertisement, the more we’ll notice it occurring within our surroundings. And yet, how many of us are aware of how our emotions can impact how we perceive or experience a given situation? To illustrate what I mean, let me share a personal story of mine from a few months ago.

My wife and I were driving back home from one of our dinner date nights when our car suddenly died just as we had turned onto the access ramp for the highway. After a couple of failed attempts to restart the car, we realized that we had no choice but to call for a tow truck. Given the distance we were from our home and the local garage, we knew that this tow was going to be a pricey one.

When we called for the tow truck, we were advised that given how it was late at night on a weekday, it would take some time to get a truck out to our location. At that point, all my wife and I could do was sit in our car wondering just how much all of this was going to cost us. It seemed that all the enjoyment we had had on our date night was fast evaporating due to this unexpected financial stress and worry.

And then something curious happened. As we were waiting, the first few cars to drive by slowed down and the people inside rolled down their windows to ask if we were okay and if we needed any help. In each case, we let the other drivers know that a tow truck was on the way and how we appreciated their assistance.

As the night went on and we continued to wait, more and more people were stopping to inquire if we were okay and if we needed to call someone for help. My wife and I soon found our mood changing and we began to joke with passing drivers about how we were capping off our date night by hanging out on the highway on-ramp.

Eventually, a police cruiser came by and the police officer got out to make sure we were safe, and added some flares around our car to make sure that the other drivers steered clear of us. The officer stayed with us for a good couple of minutes to make sure we were comfortable being alone along this stretch of road before he continued off on his patrol.

By the time the tow truck arrived, our mood have noticeably shifted from one of stress and anxiety to comfort in the knowledge that we’d be taken care of and that our car would be repaired and made as good as before.

In the end, the problem turned out to be a minor electrical issue that only took about a day to repair, though it was still an unwanted expense we had to contend with. While my wife and I understandably wished we hadn’t had to deal with this unexpected expense, in every instance where we’ve shared this story, the focus wasn’t on the unexpected repair cost for our car.

Instead, the experience served to reinforce the notion of the general goodness of people and community, and how contrary to what we see in the news these days, we haven’t lost the desire to take time to see how we can be of help to others.

Another aspect this experience revealed was how our perceptions of whether an event is positive or negative is far more malleable than we might think.

A number of psychology studies have shown that it takes three positive events for us to overcome the effects of a single negative event, which is due to our brain’s bias for survival. In other words, our brain is more likely to hold onto the impact of a negative event than a positive one in order to remind us of what we need to avoid.

Naturally, when we read about such studies, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that if we don’t have three good things happening to us during our day, we won’t be able to compensate for that one bad moment. And this is certainly reflective of what most of us experience at work – where one bad encounter, one piece of negative feedback sends us into a tailspin of doubt and uncertainty.

But let’s consider the story I shared above. Certainly, this would fall into the negative column as no one enjoys having their car break down on them, let alone at the end of a date night with your wife. And yet, notice how by focusing more on the positive actions of others who took the time to make sure we were okay made the experience more positive than one would expect.

Although the outcome in terms of expense was not diminished by their kindness, their actions helped make this experience less painful for my wife and myself, if not also transforming it into a positive experience we could share with others.

In terms of leadership, we all understand that one of our responsibilities is to model the behaviour that we want to see in those we lead. But what we should also do is help our employees to reframe those roadblocks and failures as opportunities where we can learn something about how our processes really work and what we can do to improve them, if not also how their strengths can help them to press ahead.

We can serve as an example of how our emotions don’t have to weigh us down with fear, regret, and concern, but can lift us up to see the potential around us. And we can use these moments to remind our employees that they’re not facing these difficulties alone because we care about them succeeding in their efforts.

Granted, no one likes to fail and certainly my wife and I would have gladly gone without having to deal with that repair to our car. However, by shifting what emotions we use to experience a challenging or difficult moment, by shifting what behaviours we use to respond to those events, we can encourage ourselves and those around us to not simply view them as setbacks, but as opportunities for improvement and learning.

Now, this isn’t about being Pollyannish in your leadership or wearing rose-coloured glasses. Rather, it’s about truly appreciating the idea of how life isn’t about what happens to us, but what we choose to do, of how we choose to respond to those events.

It’s about our becoming more aware of how our emotions not only impact how we approach the interactions we have with those we lead, but also how we experience those moments.

While leaders need to able to step up and manage difficult and challenging situations, we must not forget to serve as an example to those under our care of how to fully embrace these moments, not just its negative aspects, but the positive ones by pointing out the insights and lessons we can learn before moving on.

Since that night, my wife and I have returned a few times to that particular restaurant for our date night and thanks to that shift in our perception and emotion, there is no tinge of apprehension or doubt that one would expect when revisiting a time or place that harbours a bad experience or encounter.

Instead, there’s only the reminders of what we learned that night about how powerful our emotions can be in shaping our sense of reality, and of how we can use that force to create the kind of momentum we need to keep going even after we fall down.

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  1. On September 4th, 2012 at 1:13 PM Scott Mabry said:

    Great story and a great example of the power our actions have on others, particularly as leaders. Knowing this I am inspired to be more intentional about helping my team understand and re-frame their experiences in a way that keeps the focus on what can be learned from the event and how to apply what they learn to the future in a positive way.

    Thanks for a simple story that illustrates a profound and simple truth.

  2. On September 4th, 2012 at 3:03 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Scott; I'm delighted to hear that this story has inspired you to become more aware of how you can help your team to see opportunities where we might otherwise see roadblocks to moving forward.

    Thanks again for the kind words.

  3. On September 9th, 2012 at 3:41 PM kentjulian said:

    No matter what events or circumstances we face, we are in 100% control of our response. By learning how to (1) nurture motivating thoughts, (2) neutralize negative ones, and (3) stay focus on the task at hand, setbacks can be turned into comebacks. This post serves as a good reminder of that reality, Tanveer!

  4. On September 10th, 2012 at 12:21 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Kent; appreciate your sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  5. On October 21st, 2012 at 7:42 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Save the story for one of your future TED raps.

    I totally agree with you Kent.

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