Learning From Breakdowns

By Neal Eisenstein, M.B.A., MCC

When leaders are unable to follow through on a goal, fail to meet a deadline, deliver a project that does not meet expectations, or fail to meet a reasonable ask, one word to describe these disappointing events in a coaching context would be, a “breakdown.” It’s been my experience that breakdowns happen often in the life of managers and leaders.

It’s these moments — and how we deal with them — that present significant learning opportunities for self-aware leaders to work on improvement within themselves, and with their coach as well as their boss. Why is this important? It’s important because breakdowns often reflect underlying capability gaps in ourselves, our direct reports, their teams, and perhaps in our own approach to leadership.

In the heat of the moment, it’s common for leaders to blame others, stew in their frustration, and miss important opportunities to work with challenges in new ways. Many leaders don’t typically reflect on their accountability, or that the solution might begin with them. Instead, we tend to silently or secretly judge the capability of others. We don’t want to feel vulnerable. Often times, our egos distract us into puffing ourselves up like peacocks. We can move into finger-pointing mode, blame others, fear being seen as a jerk, feel unsafe, and we go it alone; silently blaming others. We don’t want to be seen as part of the problem. And yet, as leaders, even though we may not want to be seen as part of the system that contributes to the current state, we are.

Developing a muscle and growth mindset for how best to leverage breakdowns is not something that comes naturally for most leaders. Often times, we tell ourselves, “If I’m nice enough, funny enough, helpful enough, professional enough, don’t let anyone fail around me, stay present enough with my upline, I’ll be ok.” However, if we aren’t vulnerable within ourselves and with others, we miss the importance of having more honest conversations about the role we played in contributing to a breakdown in the first place.

This is a learned skill, more of a discipline actually. So, let’s take a deeper dive into the discipline and art of processing breakdowns in ways that leaders and managers can present as part of the solution vs. unintentional diminishers.

Reflect on a Breakdown — and Act

Here are five steps that you can take to begin reflecting and acting upon breakdowns in ways that can actually drive growth and learning.

1. Ensure that there is enough up-front discussion to create the necessary clarity on goals, expectations, aligning with other functions, communicating updates, and deadlines.

2. Prioritize timely updates so that others understand what you need to know and when you need to know it, or how best to keep your boss in the loop.

3. Conduct after-action meetings to understand root cause and actively be seen and appreciated for using breakdowns as learning moments for the organization.

4. Ask yourself or others (especially the boss) such questions as, “What happened? What did you do? What did I miss? What assumptions did I make? How much planning time was put into the process up front? How did I align with my key partners on this? How much feedback did I ask for up front? Now that I’m in this mess, who can I ask for advice? Was I curious enough at the time to understand some of the underlying issues?” We want this feedback and we want other people’s insights. It isn’t that the insights of others is right and that we’re wrong. Getting other perspectives can help us to see things in new ways and this can help us feel like we’re making progress instead of feeling stuck.

5. Integrate this learning into the ways that you prioritize communicating and collaborating in your organization. Are you prioritizing enough time for curiosity-based questions? Are you focusing too much on the go-forward strategy but not enough time understanding the challenges and needs of others? Are you willing and able to talk through different perspectives to align on next steps? Am I choosing to go it alone and take the risk of making inaccurate or incomplete assumptions, instead? Is my need to be liked, look good, not be seen as the cause or contributor to a problem getting in the way of my true leadership potential?

Breakdowns have power if we have the courage to embrace the learning, see it, explore for root cause, and reflect on our part in the process. Leaders ALWAYS have some kind of accountability to contributing to the current state. Leaders who use these moments as opportunities to develop themselves and their teams are typically the ones that are looked upon with greater respect and courage, and the ones with the greatest potential.

I often say to clients, “It isn’t where you begin when dealing with breakdowns, it’s where one ends-up.” There is power in breakdowns if we choose to own it this way. If not, well, I imagine that it’s just another frustrating day at the office.

For more about expanding your self-awareness, learning from your breakdowns, and building your leadership skills, schedule a consultation with Neal.