How Leaders Should React When Someone Disappoints

“Why?” the CEO of the hedge fund yelled at one of his portfolio managers. “Why would you increase that investment? What were you thinking?”

The portfolio manager muttered a weak defense which the CEO promptly and easily tore to shreds.

When the manager left his office, the CEO turned to me, exasperated. “How do you reverse a losing streak?” he asked.

“Not like that,” I said.

High performing leaders expect a lot of themselves and the people around them, as they should.

But when people fall short of those expectations, the way leaders handle their disappointment can mean the difference between a return to high performance and a downward spiral of failure.

This is a serious deficit I have seen in many otherwise strong leaders. They’re inspiring when things are going well, but when the numbers slip, they can’t help losing their temper, or withdrawing.

“I need to hold people accountable,” I often hear from leaders who lean hard on people when they show disappointing results. “Maybe I yell a little, but they’re senior enough to take it.”

Sure, maybe. But what’s more important — holding people accountable or improving their performance? There’s a massive difference.

Yes, it’s important that people are accountable for their results, and if they don’t meet expectations, they need to know that. But in reality, if they’re generally high performers, they already know that they’re falling short. And, almost always, they take it seriously.

In other words, awareness and accountability aren’t their problems. What is? Regaining enough confidence to take necessary risks to succeed after a failure.

If you’re a high-performing, impatient leader, supporting others during tough times can be particularly hard for you to do.

It’s hard because your natural, knee-jerk response to underperformance is anger, directed at yourself and others. But our natural, knee-jerk responses are often counterproductive. (This is something I talk about a lot in my new book, Four Seconds.) Anger often feels right at the time, but it almost always makes things worse.

So, how should you respond?

1. Take a breath (that’s the four seconds part). Slow yourself down for the briefest of pauses — just enough time to subvert your default reaction. In that moment, notice your gut reaction. How do you tend to handle poor performance? Do you get angry? Stressed? Needy? Distant? Your role is to give people what they need to perform, not what you need to release.

2. Decide on the outcome you want. In this case it’s fairly straightforward: improved performance. Still, be specific. What does this particular person need in order to turn around this particular poor performance or failure? Maybe it’s help defining a stronger strategy, or brainstorming different tactics, or identifying what went right. Maybe they need to know you trust them and you’re on their side.

3. But here’s what people almost never need: to feel scared or punished. And more often than not, that’s how we make them feel when we “hold them accountable” in anger.

4. Choose a response that will achieve the outcome you want, rather than simply making your already obvious displeasure more obvious.

In hard times, people want to feel more connected to their leaders. They need to have reasons to trust you. They need to feel trusted by you.

But our instinctive response is to be less visible and to communicate less positively. We have to counteract that instinct and connect more. That means more offsites, and more conversations among senior executives, as well as between senior executives and the rest of the organization.

One CEO I know resisted his urge to come down hard on people after a difficult year when the company didn’t achieve its goals. He had done that in the past with poor results. We talked about how the employees were already feeling down, compounded by the fact that none of them made the bonus threshold. He wanted to reinvigorate them so he did a counterintuitive thing: he rewarded them.

He told them that, while they didn’t earn their bonuses because of the results, he and the other senior executives knew how hard everyone worked. Then he announced that the senior executive team was going to give a share of their compensation to the rest of the company. The new energy and loyalty this created drove the company’s turn-around.

Another CEO I know had a meeting scheduled with a project team responsible for a high-profile pilot project that held the possibility of a large piece of client work. But the team was struggling and the pilot faced many challenges, some of them the fault of the team. He had prepared a short speech to tell them how critical this project was, how the company was riding on it, and how they had better fix the problems and make it work.

But when he stepped into the meeting and looked at the faces of the engineers, many of whom didn’t even meet his glance, he took a breath and changed his tactic on the spot. He knew he needed their positive energy now more than ever. And he did trust them. He started the way he had intended: “This project is critically important to our success,” and then he shifted his approach, “I know you’re doing everything you possibly can to make this successful. I want this pilot to succeed. But if we don’t get this, it’s OK. We’ll get others. I believe in you and I trust that you are doing everything possible. Thank you.”

They doubled down their efforts and turned the pilot around, eventually winning the larger project.

So, back to the hedge fund CEO’s question: How do you reverse a losing streak? Take a breath. Then offer the support needed to perform better next time.

This post was originally published on Harvard Business Review.


  1. Julie says:

    Whenever someone asks me “what was I thinking,” I typically ask, “Is that a real question, because I have a real answer.”

    I agree, bullying doesn’t work and causes so much more harm than good, if any good can come it.

    Great post today and perfect timing.

    I’m reading 4 Seconds; looking forward to getting into the next chapter.

  2. Quynh Le says:

    This article drives home the point of practicing grace under pressure in the workplace.

  3. I have had several managers over the years that were basically bullies; (I learned much from them still though, specifically “how not to behave as a leader”) a shame they never learnt better from the likes of you first, as time in their poorly led teams would have been so much more enjoyable!

    Well written Mr Bregman, thank you; think I will have a look at your new book…

  4. Scott says:

    I did this very thing in a meeting this morning. Immediately felt really stupid. Apologized a couple of hours later. This concept really hits home. Thank you, Peter!

  5. Yuri says:

    could be even simpler: life is learning, we do nothing in this life but learning, mistakes are to be accepted as a matter of life and corrected, not venerated

  6. Olga says:

    Leaders who react with anger when disappointed end up building a culture where people do everything in their power to conceal evidence of inferior performance, along with any other issue that could potentially provoke the leader’s anger. This is hugely counterproductive because the most dangerous problem is the one you don’t know about. It is wiser to make your own people feel safe to report an issue, instead of waiting for your customers to tell you about it.

  7. Ivan says:

    Systems thinking suggests that most of the failures are results of systematic, consistent contributions of the environment.

    If people are overworked, undertrained or overstressed – it’s easier to get into the problem. Bullying people once who are just part of this system can’t reverse the harm done on regular basis. Changing the incentives and contributing factors (like giving people the support) should work better.

    And taking a deep breath is the first step to realizing that. Everybody has these destructive knee-jerk reactions :)

  8. Ritu says:

    As usual, a very nice post. Thank you Peter! A leader should be a role model for ‘How to be’ rather than ‘How not to be’ and it is their behavior which decides it for others

  9. Great leaders lead by example, I think that “pause for thought” is invaluable in obtaining perspective on an event. It is so easy to “shoot from the hip” when emotions are in control.

  10. Zack says:

    I agree with the premise that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but what happens if your team mistakes your kindness for weakness?
    I am a firm advocate of the soft-handed approach, if for no other reason than yelling at people tends to upset me more than them, but the reality is that teams are generally comprised of highly heterogeneous personalities; sometimes you have very talented people who require aggressive leadership in order to yield their best work, while others respond best to a gentle “you can do it.”
    Finding a way to create an environment of tolerance from a pedestal of authority is very challenging for me.
    An article about combining the most effective elements of both leadership styles would be tremendously helpful.

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