Tough Times, Part Two: Handling Setbacks

Most project leaders are temperamentally suited to constant change and the ebb and flow of success and setback. But even the toughest of us can sometimes hit a sustained patch of adversity, bad luck and pressure. This can leave us feeling out of control and stressed.

This is when you will need to call on all your reserves of strength and resilience, to continue to act objectively, and make resourceful decisions.

In the first part of this two-part post, I looked at ways to strengthen your resilience. Now I want to consider what options you have to remain resilient when times get tough. I’ll be speaking from the experience of a short period in my career where I lost perspective under pressure.

At that time, I had let most of the good habits – that you will find in the previous article – slip. I was eating poorly, taking no exercise and getting little sleep. I was blind-sided by events and a long way from my usual support networks. So what could I have done, to help me avoid the clutches of despair, or to bounce back as quickly as possible?

how to handle problems on a project

Three Myths of to Dispel

The first thing is to avoid adversity building up to stress. As soon as we start to feel ourselves beleaguered by stresses, our perspective starts to slip. In these situations you are prey to three easy patterns of faulty thinking, listed below.


Personalization is the sense that your adverse situation is all about you. It is your fault, or people are deliberately targeting you, to make your life difficult. This is a particular risk for project manager because of the extent to which we often take responsibility for our projects and start to identify ourselves with the project. Consequently, you can start to take setbacks personally and then, start to extend that thinking to the false belief that there is something wrong with you.

Deliberately separate out the objective from the personal, in your thinking. Explicitly remind yourself that you are the manager of the project and that events are part of the natural ups and downs of project life. They would be there for any project manager. They are neither an attack by others, on you, nor your fault.


It can then be easy to think you see a pattern of everything being against you. You start to interpret each event and circumstance as part of a pattern of first bad luck and then sustained and inevitable hardship. In reality, what has probably triggered this is no more than two or three significant unfortunate events or outcomes happening at around the same time. Much of your project life – and your life outside the project – is probably carrying on as normal, with its normal minor ups and downs.

Isolate the specific events that have felt like they knocked you back and examine the background to see how it is just as you would normally expect. Look for particular examples of minor successes and positive events, to put the setbacks in a new perspective.


The biggest danger is that you will start to see the pattern of setbacks as a permanent feature of your project life, from which you won’t be able to escape. In reality, any tough times will pass. You will handle them well, or you won’t, but things usually return to their normal pattern fairly soon…as long as you don’t succumb to the permanence trap and start reading every minor glitch and problem as part of a long term pattern from which you can’t escape.

Tell yourself “this too shall pass” and plan your way out. Look to the future, beyond the limited horizon that the setbacks are causing you to focus on. Also look back at past successes and see how this run of bad fortune is exceptional, rather than part of a pattern. Other similar runs have come and gone.

Three Attitudes to Adopt

Building on some of the advice above, there are three attitudes that research show can best equip you to handle stress and adversity: optimism, flexibility and gratitude.


The confidence that you are competent and effective is the basis for your resilience. Optimism isn’t a mindless “glass-half-full” attitude: it is about a focus on spotting your opportunities to make positive change.

Keep a clear focus on what is most important. This will help you to spot ways to resolve issues. Start by taking stock of your goals and objectives and remind yourself what is most important.

Second, inventory your resources: what knowledge, skills and experience do you have, what can your team members do individually and together, and who else can you call upon? What physical resources are available to you too?

Now, as you start to break your problems down, prioritize the components against what matters most, and allocate resources to the parts, you will start to feel in control.


Under pressure, we often find ourselves getting rigidly “stuck” in fixed thinking patterns, making the same set of choices, and trying the same thing again and again. But it is usually the people who are most flexible in how they adapt to the situation, that are most likely to thrive. This means looking for more and more options, when you have failed time after time to achieve what you want: “If at first you don’t succeed…try, try something else.”


For me, gratitude is the most powerful attitude of all. In times of adversity, it can turn around deep feelings of helplessness and depression. Use it to help you keep a healthy perspective on events.  If you do find you have slid into some level of despondency, then it is a powerful way out.

When you face tough times, set aside time every day to think about what is most important to you, that you are grateful for. It works best, when you write it down and create a gratitude journal. This will help you to put your adversities in context. Too often all that we can see in tough times are the troubles that face us. By purposefully considering everything we have to be grateful for, we recover a sense of balance. 

Three Tools to Help You

Shifting your attitudes can have a rapid and profound effect on your feelings of stress or even despair. But sometimes, things get bad quickly and flip you from a cheerful optimist to a miserable victim almost instantly. At these times, you may not have enough perspective to apply the ideas above.

As a project manager, you are probably comfortable, putting a measure of trust in a tried and tested process. If you know it can work and you know how to apply it (or can find it in a blog you have saved) then it s easy to put it to work and enjoy the outcomes.

So here are three simple processes that will work.

The SCOPE Process


Your temptation, under pressure, is to respond as quickly as possible. Don’t. Stop. Take a breath. Pause. Sometimes this is no more than a deep breath; at others you may need to step away from the situation for a few minutes. That imposed pressure can trigger changes in your brain chemistry that active the less thoughtful, considered and objective parts of your brain into action: stress may follow immediately behind. By stopping, you allow time to reassert conscious, rational control.


Before doing anything else, gather some facts and make sure you really understand the situation for what it is, rather than make assumptions form the small snippet of data that triggered you to adopt the SCOPE process.


What are your potential responses. Deliberately reviewing your options – mentally or with others – will dampen down your emotional response. Once you have looked at each one, evaluate them and make your decision.


Once you have made your choice, act swiftly and deliberately. Action takes away feelings of stress by giving us a sense of control.


The difference between wisdom and foolishness is simple. Fools carry on regardless: “I have a plan: I’m following it.” Wisdom means constantly observing the outcomes you are getting and evaluating whether your plan is working, or whether you need to stop.

Distinguish Overload from Overwhelm

Overload is having more to do in a fixed time than your resources will allow. It an objective state and also one with which many project managers are familiar. We roll up our sleeves and plan our way out.

Overwhelm, on the other hand, is a subjective, emotional state. It is a stress response in which we feel that whatever faces us – a little or a lot – is too much.

The set of tasks may be easy to handle, but you must first overcome the feeling of overwhelm. You can do this by focusing on the facts: list the tasks, remove any that are just not important enough, reschedule any that can wait, quickly knock off the small ones, and then knuckle down to the first of the big ones.

You can find a more detailed process for overcoming overwhelm here.

The ABC of Adversity

In fact, there’s more: it’s ABCDE. When you really feel that events are getting on top of you, this is one of the most powerful tools. It comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.


Review the events that have triggered your feelings that you are under pressure and struggling to cope.


Your feelings are triggered not by the external events themselves, but by the beliefs you attach to them. What are your beliefs about what has happened?


What consequences do those beliefs have in limiting what you could do? How do they change your options and opportunities?


Challenge any beliefs that limit your options. Ask yourself what evidence you really have to support those beliefs. What alternative interpretations could you put on the events, which would give you more control over them?

For example, rather than: “This is another example of my bad luck.(Personalization and Permanence), try: “These events are out of my control, but I do have control over how I respond.”


What are some practical steps that you can take, which will give you control over your response to the events? How about:

  • stabilize the situation,
  • look for a long term solution, and
  • communicate with our stakeholders. 

Figure out what your priorities are and focus on that first. Isn’t that a whole lot better than feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and defeated by events?

Still feeling stressed? Then get your hands on, a collaborative online suite of software features that gives you the means to plan, monitor and report on a project in real time. Try it free with this 30-day trial.

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