Setbacks as opportunities

Setbacks are opportunities to begin again more intelligently.

Henry Ford said that. Is it true? Or are setbacks signs of failure, or perhaps embarrassing announcements to the world that you don’t know what you’re doing? Or indeed, perhaps calling a ‘mistake’ a ‘setback’ is mere semantics? Let’s take a look at those two points of view and see what we can make of them.

Seeing setbacks as opportunities keeps you in a positive frame of mind, and therefore perhaps more willing to begin again. Seeing them as a way to begin again more intelligently is great–provided you learned something from the setback. In this way, setbacks can also teach us how not to make similar–uh–setbacks again.

Seeing setbacks as opportunities may also bring you one step closer to your goal: When you walk up to a door and push it open and it remains closed, you have an opportunity to try again. You might pull it. When it still doesn’t open you might slide it open. Every time the door doesn’t open, you have moved one step closer to opening it–provided you have learned not to keep pushing it.

On the other hand, as Shakespeare pointed out, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. In other words, you can call a rose a possum but it would still smell the same, just as you can call a setback an opportunity but you still have had a setback. Calling it something else is just self-delusion and maybe even hypocrisy. Putting a positive label (opportunity) on a negative event (setback) might make you feel better but it doesn’t change the situation.

Furthermore, it’s unrealistic to go through life  expecting to have only opportunities and no setbacks; after all, a good portion of our experience is gained through hard-won life lessons, otherwise known as setbacks and mistakes. Without them, none of us would be the people we are.

So what is the answer? Should we call a spade a spade or a digging implement? Should we call a setback a setback or an opportunity? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps what matters is our attitude towards the event. We can see it as an insurmountable obstacle and use it as an excuse for giving up. We can let these events defeat us or we can look for what they can teach us. We can see them as useful information about what we’re doing and a way to keep on learning.

Perhaps that is the answer to this semantical dilemma. Whether we call them setbacks or opportunities, when they occur, the thing to do is take a breath and try something else.

Discussion questions

What do you think–are setbacks the opportunity to begin again more intelligently?

If you read my previous post, How to get top marks on your essays, did you recognise the format I used: thesis – antithesis – synthesis, topped and tailed with an introduction and conclusion? What did you think? I must say, I enjoyed writing it using the format and it certainly made me think a bit more deeply than I might otherwise have done.

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How to get top marks on your essays

I’m just past the half-way point of writing the draft for the 6th edition of this text and included some interesting information this morning about the dilemma in cross-cultural teams between disagreement and groupthink. I mentioned the French essay-writing method in passing and stopped to double-check my facts. What I was finding was so interesting, I kept digging and found what seems to be a great way to write essays, answer questions in class and even to learn about a topic.  So here we go:

Here is the format for writing an essay: Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis. This approach is so much part of the culture that it’s also used in business: Present the idea (thesis) – Present any possible objections to it (antithesis) – Sum up your conclusions (synthesis).

The basic idea is to hold your own opinion until after you have stated and explained both sides, one for and one against. It’s powerful because it shows you’ve done your homework and you know what you’re talking about. That makes it great for grades and great for learning and understanding.

Step 1: State the problem. State the essay topic or problem in one sentence in one of three ways: 1) pose a question which you will address (e.g. Have managers passed their use-by date?); 2) implied (e.g. Management’s use-by date is nigh); 3) the main theme (e.g. Management’s use-by date).  One source suggests when you’re given a general topic to write about, you turn it into a problem and write that as your problem statement.

It is around this statement that you build your essay. Before moving on to Step 2, pause and organise your paper. Write an outline showing where to put the examples you’ve dug up in your research, organising them into the three groups, (thesis, antithesis, synthesis–explained below), each with sub-groups.

Step 2: Present the thesis. This is the argument. It is usually supported by three examples and sub-examples, generally structured from the simplest and least important to the most complex and most important, each contributing logically to building a coherent argument contained in the thesis.

Step 3: Present the antithesis. This is the opposing argument, again supported with examples and sub-examples, following the same structure as Step 2.

Step 4: Present the synthesis. This is a new idea that combines the thesis and antithesis. You can think of it as the middle ground, or an attempt to reconcile the thesis and antithesis.

Step 5: Write your introduction and conclusion. Your introduction provides the problem statement from Step 1, and explains the topic and how the essay is structured (e.g. ‘In the first section, I examine … In the second section, I consider … In the third section, I conclude with …).

In the conclusion, you finally get to give your opinion–but only after offering a summary of what you’ve already said (keep it brief), making a case for the most powerful argument. This summary should give rise to your opinion. If you’ve stated the problem as a question, answer it.

If you want to get fancy, you can now point to another question or area of research. Remember to include a bibliography, or list of sources you’ve consulted.

Your essay can be as short as five paragraphs or as long as a book. One source I consulted says that he began answering questions in class and writing essays this way while studying in Belgium and Switzerland. He continued with the format when he went back to the US, and his professors were totally impressed with the comprehensiveness of his answers, essays and understanding of the subject–and his marks reflected it. When he began teaching himself, he taught his students this format with ‘spectacular’ results. Their essays and grades improved and using the format in other classes gave them an advantage over the other students in terms of marks, too.

I plan to have a go at the thesis-antithesis-thesis format myself for the next few blogs;  if I like it, I’ll probably stick with it. So stay tuned and see what you think!

Discussion questions

How do you think this thesis-antithesis-synthesis format would work for you? Do you think the discipline of writing this way would enhance your learning?

Do you give team members enough feedback?

When people join an organisation or transfer to a new team, the ‘settling in’ process includes figuring out where and how they fit in. This is called ‘calibration’. The answer is probably going to be different to a person’s place in their last team. That’s why role clarity and plenty of feedback are extremely important to helping people make smooth transitions. (Chapters 11 and 24 of the text have more information on this.)

Then there are team members who are overly confident about their abilities and knowledge. Known as ‘unskilled and unaware’, their high opinions of their abilities give them the least incentive to learn; they ‘don’t know what they don’t know’, to coin a phrase.

According to research, the least skilled and aware people are the last to work out they need some help. Without feedback and clear measuring posts to calibrate themselves against, they remain blissfully unaware of their performance weaknesses, both relative to others and in absolute terms. Without feedback and measures of success, your unskilled and unaware employees will never realise where they really fit in and what they need to learn to become contributing members of the team.

But just pointing out a person’s weaknesses isn’t’ the answer. You need to help them understand their limitations in a way that indicates your faith they can learn new skills and in a way that motivates them to learn those skills.

Continuous information about peoples’ performance is a driver of success in every enterprise and all the more important with recruits, poor performers and unrealistically and overly confident performers.

Discussion questions

How well do you provide clear success measures and feedback to your team members? What about you? Are you aware of your own weaknesses and are you taking steps to plug the gaps? If not, you might fit into the unskilled and unaware category yourself! How would you compare and contrast over-confidence with the ‘impostor syndrome’ discussed on page 144 of the text?

How to ace your next job interview

How confident do you feel about interviewing for a job? Whether they’re for an external or an internal role, interviews can be harrowing, especially when it’s for a job you’re really interested in. You want the interviewer(s) to realise how perfect you are for the role yet you don’t want to come across as arrogant or conceited. So what’s the answer?

First, get your body language right: follow the usual drill of no high fashion outfits or bright colours, a nice firm handshake, eye contact, upright and open posture (e.g. no crossed arms) and so on. (For more on how to make a great first impression, see my blog How to put your best foot forward.)

Remember that interviewers often make up their minds during the first 90 seconds, so have your answer to the first question ready. The first question is normally some variation of ‘Tell me about yourself‘ so have your ‘elevator speech’, your confident and clear 90 second summary of what you do and who you are that (just happens to) make you perfect for the vacancy.

When answering other questions, use examples to bring out your best qualities that show you’re the ideal candidate. Arm yourself with a selection of examples of what you’ve done and how you’ve done it to highlight your positive traits, skills and experience. Because these are truthful examples of what you’ve actually done, and because you are talking about them very matter-of-factly, you won’t sound overly boastful.

You don’t have to limit yourself to workplace examples, particularly if you don’t have years of work experience behind you. Think back through your life, not just your working life, and select examples that highlight the skills, experience, knowledge and characteristics you believe the interviewer(s) is looking for. For instance, if you are a loyal and hard-working person and you think this is a necessary qualification for the job, describe a time when you have been loyal and hard working in the past; this might be in a voluntary capacity, in a part-time job, on a school or college committee, or caring for a relative or sibling.

Of course, not everything about you is going to be perfect. When you need to give an example that conveys a less-than-perfect impression, add: ‘From this I learned …’ or ‘I have continually improved on that by …’ This shows that you don’t just make mistakes and move on but that you actually learn from them and use them to improve your performance.

Do your homework about the role by thinking about the sort of person who would be perfect for the job. This tells you how to paint the best possible picture of yourself and which clear examples to provide.

  • What should you know how to do? For example, how to motivate a tattered work team; how to operate a fancy newsletter-designing program; how to conduct a risk assessment.
  • What knowledge and information should be at your fingertips? For example, how to set priorities and organise your day so you get everything done; why safety hazards and risks need to be recorded and monitored and ways to mitigate them; how to gather, display and analyse statistical information.
  • What previous experience would be an advantage? For example, working with members of the public; managing remote employees; turning around sub-standard performance; working in a fast-paced and unpredictable environment.
  • What will the perfect candidate be like as a person? For example, should the perfect candidate enjoy working in a hectic, noisy environment; be pleasant and cheerful even to the most grumpy customer; be the sort of person who patiently and painstakingly looks after the details?

Do your homework about the organisation. This shows you’re keen to work there and helps you slant your examples in the right direction. When the role is external and someone in your network works there, invite them for a coffee (if they’re in your area) and pick their brains.

Should you fluff a question, keep calm and breathe. Answer the next question well.

As the interview comes to a close, make it clear you are keen on the job and the organisation. You can even ask something like: ‘Are there any areas of concern you have about my ability to excel in this role?‘ If there are, try to answer them. If there aren’t that’s fantastic. Some interviewees then say:’When do I start?!‘ but you need to be comfortable with that approach and use it judiciously.

Discussion questions

Have you thought about keeping a log of your achievements and accomplishments that illustrate your employability skills and knowledge? There are eight key employability skills that describe generic competencies for effective participation in the workforce: Communication, Initiative and enterprise, Learning, Planning and organising, Problem solving, Self-management, Teamwork, and Technology. How do you keep track of your other management skills, for example, developing effective work teams, encouraging innovation and continuous improvements, and leading and motivating people?