Achieve Success from Setbacks: The Secret is being “At Cause”

“I got screwed …
but it wasn’t my fault!” Bruce was really upset and voiced his displeasure with the topic at a two-day offsite management training. Bruce was rejecting the premise of an exercise that, in hindsight, taught me the most valuable leadership lesson I have ever learned.

Like many heavily-technical organizations, Oracle Customer Support had a lot of first-time managers who came up from the technical ranks, some of whom were promoted into management based upon their technical “chops” instead of people leadership skills. During the Ray Lane era, Oracle was growing rapidly and saw the value in investing their people in order to drive continued business success by providing training for all managers.

The exercise was simple enough. The facilitators paired us up and asked us to take turns explaining in 5 minutes to our partner about a recent time when we got “screwed” i.e. when we were treated unfairly in the workplace.

Suddenly, things got a lot more interesting. After we told our “story,” the facilitator then instructed us to “Explain the same situation but describe what you did to cause or contribute to the situation.” Some people immediately “got it” – they described how they didn’t manage up effectively, ignored early warning signs, didn’t make sure there was a clear definition of success, or made other mistakes. Other people, like Bruce, rejected the idea that they had any responsibility for what happened to them because they simply could not re-orient their own thinking. They were trapped in a world where everyone had wronged them so they were doomed to spend their time just waiting for the next “unfair” situation to unfold – when the people, the process, or the company would “screw” them again.

“At Cause” or “At Effect”.
The facilitators described these two ways of analyzing situations as the difference between being “at cause” or “at effect.” If you were “at cause”, you looked at historical situations with a focus on your actions – what you did, didn’t do, so you could learn from them and do things differently next time to get a more positive outcome. If you approached setback in “at effect” mode, you looked at situations as the unfolding of events and circumstances that were out of your control. When in “at effect” mode, the personal conclusions were to “not work for jerks” or to “not deal with people who play politics” or other defensive rationalizations. Essentially, they missed an invaluable learning lesson.

When looking at a situation that didn’t turn out the way you had hoped, here are the questions to ask to get in “at cause” mode so that you can learn from mistakes, improve future outcomes, and advance your career.

  • “What did I do?” - if you calmly think through a situation after some time has passed, you may very well realize that you did things without intending to that contributed to the problem. For example, early on in my career, I approached some professional conflict situations with a “winner take all” attitude. Instead of looking for compromises or creating “win-win” situations, I acted like a student on the Debate team where the desired outcome was for me to “win” and for someone else to lose. But after reflecting back on those situations and asking myself the question, I recognized the pattern, changed my approach, and was more effective in the workplace.
  • “What didn’t I do?” - Often inaction will cause failure. I had lunch with a former colleague recently who was let go from a project management role after only a few months. “Karen” took over a high-visibility project that was already behind schedule. The date had been moved, and she was brought in to make sure things stayed on track this time. But Karen quickly realized that even the new date was unrealistic and that the team couldn’t hit the deadline without a significant change to the resource plan. As a newbie, she was afraid to bring bad news to her boss and make others look bad. So she stayed quiet, hoped for the best, and was let go once the news was finally out that another deadline would be missed. The “at effect” view of the situation is that the delay wasn’t her fault and she “took the fall” for other people’s poor planning and poorer execution. The “at cause” view of the situation is that she hurt herself by not having the courage to raise the issue early. If she had done so, it’s possible that the executives could have given her more resources, reset the date, or done other things to help get it back on track. But she didn’t give the organization that chance, because she was more comfortable “hoping for a miracle” and avoid delivering bad news than calling out the issue.
  • “What would I do differently next time?” If the first two questions don’t yield obvious answers, it’s time to take a broader and deeper view of the issue. Sometimes, the answer actually is “I should avoid working in that kind of culture again” or “I should recognize when my manager is a weak sponsor and find a way to move into another team.” In other words, sometimes the changes necessary to avoid a repeat situation are not just small tactical adjustments, but fundamental realizations about the environments and teams where you’re most likely to succeed. Coming to understand this made a huge difference in my career choices and progression.

It’s easy to spot people who commit to an “at effect” approach and suffer the consequences throughout their careers. They either stay in the same role for years and years because they can’t get more opportunity, or they bounce from job to job and have only bad things to say about their prior managers, teams, and companies. Inevitably, they set themselves up for more failure because no one rallies around a finger-pointing complainer who seems to have more than their share of disappointments. In teams and projects, we gravitate towards people who take ownership and focus more on how to achieve team success instead of “blamestorming” or making excuses.

If you can practice taking an “at cause” approach to challenges and setbacks, you’ll find that it becomes very natural over time and it will dramatically improve your ability to learn from prior setbacks and significantly improve your judgment. It’s also a trait that I’ve looked for when I’ve chosen the next wave of leaders in my teams.

If you have experiences or advice on how to learn from mistakes effectively, please share your comments below. If you liked any of the ideas in this post, please use the social media icons to share on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere.

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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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