How Did I Mess This Up?

4 minute read

If you’ve ever had a conversation go really sideways, you probably reviewed what happened and then worked to figure out where things got off track. If you have a high level of ownership, you may have tied yourself in knots identifying what you did “wrong.” Sometimes you may attribute a bad outcome to what you think of as a bad decision/process on your part, even if that wasn’t the real cause. In cases where you’re thinking “how did I mess this up,” remember that you may not have.


I’m listening to a book about decision-making and poker, and just learned the term “resulting”. That’s where a player may inaccurately attribute the outcome of a hand to a particular decision/process of theirs. This is damaging for learning and internal feedback loops when we have a good outcome after a bad decision or a bad outcome after a good decision. It’s easy to combine the two together when they really are distinct. 

As expensive as “resulting” can be in a game of poker, it’s especially costly when interacting with other people.

We never know everything that is going on for someone, like how they are seeing and processing a situation, at that particular time and place. How people are really showing up to any particular conversation is unknown and uncontrollable. The people we interact with are the wild cards!

Let’s say you support Ryan with accountability (for example) and get a poor response. Perhaps Ryan gets highly animated with lots of emotions, or shuts down and simply stops interacting. It could be tempting to think that our process was flawed and to abandon it.

When I have a situation that goes sideways like this, I definitely take time to check on my part first. I’ll consider how I created safety for the conversation, what I was intending to do, and how I actually went about it. As quickly as I can, I take a few minutes to talk with a centered colleague, replay the conversation and ask them where I could have gotten off track. Then I’ll ask again, emphasizing that I really want to know how I may have accidentally messed up my part.

If you do this review, and you and your colleague are both confident that your part of that conversation was sound, then it’s time to consider that the other person simply had a poor response. We’ll skip over where that could go from here since this is a focus on your part of the interaction.

Outcome vs. Process

The reason this is so important is because if you do a good job holding a team member accountable, and they have a really poor response, you may have done your piece well. It’s critical to separate the bad result from the good process

If I hold Ryan accountable in a thoughtful and supportive way and he flips out, that doesn’t mean it’s time for me to stop providing thoughtful and supportive accountability. It says more about how Ryan is receiving and processing accountability that day. The poor outcome is mostly a result of factors outside of my control…the “wild card” of how Ryan is responding at that moment.

How come this distinction between process and outcome is so important? It’s incredibly likely each of us will work with someone who responds poorly to a healthy and supportive tool. That may be direct language, accountability, or feedback they aren’t comfortable with. What’s critical here is to not water down or stop using powerful tools based on a poor response

When leaders we work with admitted to changing a good process after a bad outcome, they said that they eventually felt powerless and frustrated. They will say things like, “I tried holding him accountable, it was a dumpster fire of a conversation, so I quit doing that…now I don’t know what the hell to do!” 

Many leaders we work with have shared stories like this. It’s common for successful executives to realize that they have stopped using healthy & supportive tools with someone because the outcome wasn’t good, even though the process was solid. We help them separate outcome from the process, and to really look at the two pieces clearly.

As you review challenging situations that didn’t go the way you expected, take time to split apart your process from the outcome. As you reflect on your part with a clearer mindset, you may realize that your process was just fine. If you really aren’t sure, drop us a line and we’ll give you a hand!