Dealing with and learning from challenging situations in work

Experimentation, iteration and empathy form a huge part of our work, and it is a given that things may not always go as planned. However, our feelings and experiences when facing challenging moments may not be something we often explicitly address. As a team, it is useful to create rituals that help us spot these moments and learn from them.

After visiting an interesting session for social designers on the value of failure in design, we were inspired to organise a series of inspiration sessions with the Stby team on this topic. In these inspiration sessions, we wanted to figure out what dealing with challenging moments means to us as a team. In our working culture, as well as regarding our personal development. We, therefore, set out to explore how we can make more room for understanding what we can learn from each other by sharing failure stories. And how this can help the team learn from challenging moments together in the future.

This process required us to have several open dialogues as a team. The language we want to use when addressing feelings that occur when ‘failing’ is important. We used the alternative of ‘challenging moments’ because it offers a more constructive and sensitive way to openly talk about these moments. 

 How can we make sure everyone feels comfortable and supported?

Part 1 of the Empathy Map we created to unpack challenging moments

The foundation of many of these conversations was based on work moments each team member had experienced that perhaps could have gone better. These reflections asked for a level of vulnerability from our team members that could be scary and even a bit uncomfortable. To lower the barrier of doing so, two of our team members who facilitated these sessions shared their own ‘failure stories’ using empathy maps we had designed to break down what happened and create space for reflection. 

The value of reflecting on challenging moments

By using a mapping method we wanted to illustrate how sharing your stories about challenging moments, and practising open dialogues about them with a colleague helps professional learning and growth. The team worked in duos on creating their empathy maps to encourage this. A key component of the empathy map was to take an example of a challenging moment from the past and explicitly note the emotions and actions which played a role in the story. The value of doing this with a colleague is multifaceted. Your colleague can help you make the links between emotion and action explicit, and help you discover things you did not think of before. They can also help you recognise and validate your experience and provide a safe space and different perspective for wider learning.  

Reflecting on emotions makes us good researchers

One of our main takeaways from these conversations was that we all experience emotions while doing our work. This is not a surprise, because it’s a natural part of how we as humans experience life in both personal and professional settings. But in our line of work, using and recognizing emotions is what makes us good researchers. Furthermore, emotions play a big role in the decisions we make and often implicitly and explicitly drive our actions when navigating more challenging work moments. 

Part 2 of the Empathy Map we created to unpack challenging moments

However, reflecting on moments when things may not have gone as planned, also requires addressing more negative emotions and can mean that it is harder, or that we avoid unpacking these moments. The experience of talking about challenging moments showed that team members can help each other express when they feel uncomfortable or insecure. This helps the team to nurture a balanced work culture. It’s not just about praising our colleagues when things go right but also being able to have conversations about things that went wrong or could have been better. This helps strengthen the ability to connect actions and emotions in the workplace. And that helps us better understand the value of learning from challenging moments as an individual and as a team.

Nurturing our work culture and creating opportunities

What these sessions made clear is that it is always helpful, when a team member feels safe enough and comfortable, to talk about struggles and challenging moments in projects and communicate with team members. This requires both a level of continuous personal growth as well as nurturing a company culture that provides the space for these moments and allows for openness and vulnerability.   

We explored a range of tools and moments that can help with this. 

  • The empathy map we created to help people reflect on past or present challenging moments and understand the role of their actions and emotions in these situations. This facilitates personal development on the level of emotional literacy in the workplace. 
  • Different ways of communicating and indicating when a team member does want to talk about a more vulnerable situation and needs to have a conversation that requires sensitivity.
  • Structured moments in the year to reflect on the work and discuss what went well and what could have gone better
  • Informal moments that can come up at different times in a workday or workweek 
  • And finally, our open and safe working culture needs to be continuously nurtured. And keep reminding ourselves that there is space for real conversations on more challenging moments.

Ultimately, it is unrealistic to expect that life in the workplace will be without its challenging moments. However, we have agency in how we perceive and utilise these moments and make them into moments that matter. We can choose to use ‘Failure stories’, or ‘challenging moments’ as we’d prefer to call them, as key learning moments. When handled well, mistakes and confusions can lead to a better road forward and encourage new and innovative approaches. There are many opportunities in these moments, and with the right tools and moments we can make lemonade from lemons.   

Rather experiment and make mistakes, than do nothing

Sophie Tendai and Paulien Kreutzer