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How to coach employees through end-of-year disappointments and changes

5 min read


As we approach the final quarter of 2014, most business leaders are shifting their focus to year-end responsibilities, such as delivering reviews, announcing promotions, and repositioning team or organizational roles. While it’s fun and rewarding to convey positive news, many leaders struggle with communicating about and managing the fallout from disappointing news or potentially unsettling changes that are inevitably announced this time of year as well.

There are generally three choices for dealing with such “elephants in the room”: (1) choose to ignore them, (2) dance around them insufficiently, or (3) address them in an open, direct and constructive way. I will always recommend the last approach, accompanied by a manager-as-coach mindset.

A best practice to help leaders coach their people through such stressful situations involves a common sense series of four Ps: Process, Probing, Perspectives, and Planning.

Process. Encourage your people to process setbacks rather than bottling them up. Disappointments obviously conjure lots of emotion, which is energy in motion, so it’s not healthy to simply brush them aside. Emotion must be processed; otherwise, it gets stored in our bodies in such forms as tight shoulders, chronic back pain or high blood pressure.

While you may certainly offer to be a sounding board, most people process unsettling circumstances best in an environment outside of the office — over wine with a spouse or trusted friend, via a run in the park, with a punching bag at the gym, on the mat at a hot yoga class, with a beloved child or pet on the lap, or maybe sitting alone in thought in a peaceful place. Give them the space and time they need, within reason.

Probing. We learn so much more from our frustrations and failures than we do from our successes. As such, once a person has had a chance to process the emotion from a disappointment, work with him/her to mine the valuable gems from the experience. The only real failure in any setback is to learn nothing from it and cease to grow. Ask some probing questions in order to prompt meaningful self-reflection, such as:

  • What do you know you do well that you want to keep doing or do more of?
  • With the benefit of hindsight, what could you have done differently to realize more of what you wanted?
  • How might you approach a similar situation in the future?
  • Imagine you’re recounting this experience five years from now. What do you think you’d tell people that you learned?

Perspectives. A complementary approach is to help your people consider the experience from a different perspective than one of disappointment or anxiety. We never really know the full truth behind anything that happens, and it is human nature to create stories to fill in the missing pieces. Sadly, the stories we tend to make up are often negative, self-critical, discouraging, defensive or all of the above. We can choose to adopt any mindset we want, so why not adopt one that’s constructive and propels us forward? Not delusional or Pollyanna-ish, but grounded in some realistic possibility.

Perhaps it was a dress rehearsal for an even better opportunity? Or maybe it wasn’t the opportunity it appeared to be on the surface. Was it a much-needed wakeup call to reevaluate what you really want? What might be better about the new situation? What decision might you have made in management’s shoes?

Planning. Buoyed by some emotional catharsis, honest reflections from probing questions, and some constructive perspectives, your people will now be in a much better place to plan next steps and revise their goals. We can’t change the past, but we can control the decisions we make and the actions we take moving forward. There are a variety of effective processes leaders use to help people think through ideas and get into action, and the key is to keep it simple, collaborative, and S.M.A.R.T. (guidance ensuring that objectives are “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound” objectives – developed by George T. Doran).

Utilizing this four-step approach to engage with employees affected by setbacks or unwelcomed changes will not only boost their well-being, self-awareness, and productivity, but it will also increase accountability for finding success. Furthermore, the process positions leaders to move swiftly to the other undertaking that naturally springs from the year’s end: tackling those largely looming objectives for next year!

Shani Magosky is a talent management consultant and executive coach, having worked in numerous industries, for venerable institutions and unknown start-ups, in a range of economic environments from bubble to recession, and in revenue-producing, advisory, and senior managerial roles. Previously, she worked at Goldman Sachs, managed a local TV station in Vail, Colo., and was chief operating officer/chief financial officer of an all-virtual international marketing company. Her firm, Vitesse Consulting, helps companies accelerate development of leaders, engage employees, and improve performance. She can be reached at [email protected] or (970) 376-1860.

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