S is for Managing Setbacks Successfully

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Peak performers have a pattern of managing setbacks successfully. Sometimes they actually emerge stronger from such experiences. They grow wiser and more able to do great work in the future.

There are many models for dealing with setbacks. But let’s begin by exploring your own way of overcoming challenges.

Clarifying how you have
managed setbacks in the past

Everybody has a positive history of dealing with challenges. Looking back, can you recall a time when you overcome a setback successfully?

You may have dealt with a disappointment, overcome an illness, recovered after losing a job or whatever. Your first response may have been pain or anger, but then you chose to go forward.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation when you overcame a setback successfully.

Describe the specific things you did right then – the principles you followed – to overcome the setback successfully.

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Managing Reactive Change

Setbacks sometimes ask us to manage change successfully. There are many models regarding how people manage change. One approach is to look at two kinds of change. These are Proactive Change and Reactive Change.

Proactive Change

This is when people choose to be proactive and do something to improve their lives. People feel in charge of the process and this gives them a sense of being in control.

You can discover more about this approach in the article written about Charles Handy’s work on Surfing The Sigmoid Curve. Here is the link.


Reactive Change

This is when people are affected by outside conditions that may cause change in their lives. People feel less in control, which can lead to them going through many emotions.

Many of the models for understanding reactive change are based on the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She is probably best known for the stages of grief and her book On Death and Dying, which was published in 1969.

Elisabeth said that people often go through certain stages when facing the prospect of death, experiencing a loss or encountering a negative transition. Starting from feeling relatively stable, they may then go through these stages.

Denial: “This can’t be true.”

Anger: “Who is to blame?”

Bargaining: “If things work out, I promise to live a better life.”

Depression: “This is awful. I can’t see a way forward.”

Acceptance: “I am ready to move on.”

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Elisabeth explained that the phases were not necessarily sequential and people may go through some, but not all, of them. There would be ups and downs, regressions and leaps forward.

Some researchers challenged the model, but many people found it gave a framework for making sense of their experience. This was in itself liberating.

Many others have since built on Elisabeth’s work and added to the model. These have provided more insights about how people can overcome difficult situations. Let’s explore some of these stages.


People experience a crisis. They lose their job, suffer an accident or get some bad news.

Shock is the first reaction to trauma. This can be the case when somebody gets the sack, is involved in a car accident, loses a loved one or gets caught in a disaster. Shock gives way to the next stage.


A feeling of unreality follows: “It’s not true. It can’t be happening. I can’t believe it.”

The driver climbs out of a smashed car, insists they feel all right and wants to continue their journey. The patient hears they have an incurable disease, but insists the hospital has mixed up the x-rays.

During the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster in England, for example, the authorities denied there was a problem, even though injured spectators were trying to find safety on the pitch. The authorities just wanted to get on with the game.


The police froze at Hillsborough. Constables reported that they had been ordered to stop spectators getting onto the pitch whatever the circumstances.

Distressed fans were therefore herded back into pens that had become death traps. Crucial minutes were lost before they evacuated spectators trapped behind the terrace barriers.

Paralysis is common in many stress situations. Bureaucrats in threatened organisations continue to follow old procedures, hoping the dangers will disappear.

Passengers relax on planes that have crash landed successfully, thinking their ordeal is over, only to be overcome by toxic fumes.


“Let’s find somebody to blame,” is the cry. People search for scapegoats.

Victims pin blame on, for example, the police, the authorities, political parties, the other car driver or God. Some blame Life that has treated them cruelly.

People often need to vent their feelings and experience a catharsis before entering the next stage.


Pain seeps through the body, the organisation or the nation. Tears are shed and nightmares are re-lived.

Individuals react differently. Some may want to talk, sleep or retreat into silence. Some try to numb the pain with drink or other substance. Some relapse into depression.

Some people feel they are sinking downwards and fear they won’t pull out of the dive. Many come to terms with the pain, however, and enter the next stage.


The optimistic scenario is that the body recovers and the mind begins to understand. Full acceptance takes longer, but it is time to start on the road to recovery.

The pessimistic scenario is that people sink deeper and experience a breakdown. Some stay at this level for a long time.

People obviously need encouragement at this stage. But at some point they must also take responsibility for their own future. Many people pull the pieces together and decide that life must go on. This takes us to the next step.

New Strength

People emerge from mourning as the mind searches for deeper meaning.

The 45-year-old who experienced a heart attack, for example, considers developing a healthier lifestyle. They mobilise the physical and psychological strength needed to tackle future challenges.

The body feels stronger, the mind more determined. It is time to move forward and translate the feelings into action.

New Goals

After a painful divorce, the person aims to start a new relationship. After surviving a car accident, the driver again gets behind the wheel.

After the Hillsborough disaster, some football clubs removed the cages that had fenced in fans, whilst some clubs still procrastinated. Eventually all the clubs were forced to revamp their stadiums. They were set new health and safety goals.

People need hope. They sometimes do this by setting their sights on a long-term vision. At the same time, however, they also set short-term realistic goals that will produce visible successes.

Hard Work

People start fresh relationships, find new jobs, rebuild their cities or repair their nations after a disaster. This often calls for hard work and the sweat can have a cleansing effect. People feel they are doing something and begin to see results.

As mentioned earlier, however, the process is not linear. People may start getting the lives back together, but then maybe have flashback. Some also relapse, returning to Anger and Hurt.

The next step is to translate the action into some early wins.


A sacked worker feels better after completing their first week in a new job. A divorced person feels better after developing a more enriching relationship.

Earthquake victims feel better after clearing the ruins and erecting the first houses. They feel even more determined to rebuild their city.

People cannot be given success. They have to earn it. They can be offered the right encouragement and tools to do the job. But they must get out of the chair and do the work.

Self Confidence

People put the bad experience into perspective. Some individuals may still feel bitter, but others have different reactions. A person may say:

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It taught me that I could survive many things.

“It made me appreciate life and concentrate on what is important.”

People often feel older, wiser and stronger.

Sanctuary, Shaping and Success

How do people come through the curve? They may manage it by themselves, talk with a friend, join a self help group or use another approach.

Classic counsellors, for example, provide a supportive and non-directive environment in which a person can talk through their experiences. This enables them to work through the curve.

Depending on the approach they use, people may spend time in a sanctuary. They then take charge of shaping their future and getting a success. Let’s explore this process.

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People who suffer a setback often need to lick their wounds and begin to make sense of the experience. They need to spend time in a sanctuary.

Different people choose different kinds of sanctuaries. They may rest, sleep, write, listen to music, see a counsellor or whatever. People begin to heal and regain their strength.

Sanctuaries are great. But there comes a time to move on, otherwise the muscles atrophy. People focus on what they can control and start shaping their future.

They set short-term goals, work hard and get a success. Feeling more confident, they take the next step in their life or work.

Imagine that you work with people who want to overcome setbacks. Helpers recognise it can be important for people to work through the various stages of the change curve.

At an appropriate time, however, some helpers may make certain interventions. They help the person to build on their inner strength. So they may invite the person:

To look back and recall a time when they have managed a difficulty successfully.

To clarify what they did right then to manage the difficulty successfully.

To focus on how they can follow similar principles – plus maybe add other skills – to manage the present difficulty successfully.

This reinforces the philosophy that people possess inner strengths and successful patterns. They can harness these resources to shape a successful future.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. You have already clarified when you overcame a setback in the past. This exercise invites you to look to the future and do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future where you may want to manage a potential setback successfully.

Describe the specific things you can do then to do your best to manage the setback successfully.

Describe the specific benefits of doing these things and managing the setback successfully.

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