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Three ways to demystify disappointments at work

When things don’t go the way you expect them to, you can use practical strategies to better understand the situation and move forward with greater success. See also “Three ways to better understand disappointments at work.”

You spend a lot of time and energy trying to produce certain outcomes at work, so when you find yourself in a situation in which your colleagues or employees do just the opposite of what you expect and want, it leaves you feeling confused and disappointed. “Why did they just do that?” you wonder, and, “How did I get it so wrong?”

Questions like these, if not resolved, lead to even more frustration if the scenario reoccurs. To improve your results, you must examine the stories and logical forces at work beneath the surface of the messages you send and receive and the actions that ensue. My book Re-Making Communication at Work describes the theoretical foundations of these concepts and suggests some practical ways to be a more insightful — and therefore effective — leader.

Uncover the missing stories. There’s often tension between the story we live and the story we tell. The first step in making sense of confusing experiences at work is to focus on the difference between these two narratives.

For example, Mae, a newly promoted manager, feels something’s off with her team. She’s always gotten along with and been respected by everyone, but things have been chillier since she began asking for regular status updates and freely sharing her suggestions about how work should get done. She tells herself that she’s being a good leader by supporting the team and staying engaged.

However, the members of Mae’s team are having a vastly different experience. They describe Mae’s ardent oversight as micromanaging and find her behavior intrusive and stifling. The difference between Mae’s story and her team’s perspective explains the mysterious anxiety in the group.

Three ways to better understand disappointments at work

Mae desperately needs to hear about the true nature of the team’s experience, but she’s the kind of leader who’s defensive and somewhat closed to feedback, so the team members feel they can’t say anything. As a result, Mae believes that her own story is definitive, and resentment and intractable attitudes might soon surface among those who report to her.

The job of a leader — and everyone, actually — is to uncover the stories that can add a greater sense of meaning to a shared experience. Imagine how Mae might grow as a leader if courageous team members could respectfully challenge her definition of what a good leader does by sharing their viewpoints.

To be a more astute observer of the hidden stories around you, think about a recent experience that concerns you and reflect on these questions:

  • Are there any unknown stories that could provide important, missing information?
  • Are there any stories that others are choosing not to tell, and if so, why?
  • Are there any stories that are being told but have been discounted or unacknowledged?
  • Are there any stories that might be perceived to be taboo or off-limits?

Once you identify a potentially missing story, go directly to the person who can tell you about it and invite an open conversation. In Mae’s situation, she could ask, “Have I asked the team about their take on what’s going on? Have I communicated to them that I’m open to honest feedback? What am I doing that might make people uncomfortable about speaking up?”

Look for reasons behind actions. Various logical forces prompt us to speak and act in certain ways. For instance, Mae leads the way she does because she feels that’s how she “should” act, and bases that feeling on her past experiences. Her first boss was aloof, with a laissez-faire style of management that left Mae feeling isolated and unsupported. Mae vowed never to be that kind of leader. Over the years, every leadership book Mae read urged her to invest time in others, offer guidance and support, and remain highly engaged. These best practices confirmed her conviction and caused her to double-down on her aspirational style of leadership.

If members of the team knew more about the origins and intentions behind Mae’s management approach, they would probably interact with her differently. Mae’s example demonstrates why it’s so important to uncover the invisible reasons for different actions.

To do this, it’s helpful to try to develop your “logical force radar.” In the same way that navigational radar gives you bearings, logical force radar can give you a picture of the fixed rationalizations and explanations that influence the way you and others act. Think about a recent confusing episode at work and consider the prompts in both columns below:

In Mae’s case, the logical force justifying her chosen approach to leadership was unwavering. She had both personal experience and academic explanations validating it all. Yet although her commitment was admirable, the fact that she was slowly losing her team’s confidence was a signal that she should reevaluate whether her deep sense of “should” was derailing those relationships.

The value of this exercise is that it allows you to map and interpret the differences between the way you think and the way others do, and it forces you to reflect on the intentions and objectives that drive contrasting actions. By doing this, you become more mentally flexible. And with a better sense of the logical force behind actions, everyone can communicate with greater understanding to achieve the best possible results.

Seek to understand, not judge. When someone acts in a way we don’t expect or want, we can make some pretty quick — and often negative — assumptions. But the truth is that the stories and logical forces that lead to those actions aren’t inherently good or bad. By staying neutral in your attitude, you won’t waste energy blaming others for undesired outcomes, taking ill-fated action based on your assumptions, or lamenting a past you can’t fix.

The job of a leader — and everyone, actually — is to uncover the stories that can add a greater sense of meaning to a shared experience.

It’s more productive to focus on the tangible shift you want to create. What do you want to be different? What do you need to understand better in order to make it happen?

The ideas and exercises I’ve introduced here are what strategy+business editor-in-chief Art Kleiner, Jeffrey Schwartz, and Josie Thomson, authors of the book, The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership, might describe as “mentalizing,” or intentionally reflecting on what other people are thinking and what they’re likely to do next.

It’s difficult to mentalize while multitasking your way through an overstuffed to-do list. But it’s crucial to slow down and carve out the space to adopt habits such as these, because they get you to what the authors refer to as high ground: a level of mindfulness that provides the starting point for a more thoughtful, present, grounded, and strategic approach to leadership.

The next time you’re confounded by an unexpected or confusing situation at work, start mentalizing. Rather than guessing about what went wrong, or assuming the worst in others, use these strategies to illuminate the invisible drivers of conversation, decision making, and behavior. It’s a harder road to follow, but it will lead to higher ground.

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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