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Use counterfactual thinking in business to realign after a setback

We’ve all experienced situations that simply didn’t play out as expected. Cue the anguished hours, maybe even days, spent rehashing what went wrong and who’s to blame. Inevitably sheer exhaustion sets in and we must acknowledge nothing can be done and hope for a better outcome next time.

It is tempting to assume this process is both therapeutic and didactic in that it helps us reconcile feelings of disappointment and also hopefully teaches us something that will prevent similar mistakes in the future. But what are we really learning? And what sort of impact does all that negativity have on feelings of self-worth and confidence? Surely there must be a better way to effectively work through the what-ifs that haunt us after a failure or setback.

The key to a better "mental protocol" according to Neal J. Roese, Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, is counterfactual thinking. Not to be confused with counterintelligence or dismissing the facts entirely, counterfactual thinking involves imagining alternative outcomes contrary to what actually happened.

There’s a good chance that some counterfactual thinking typically plays into your post-failure rumination as you dissect conversations, actions, or extraneous factors and consider how doing things differently could have avoided disaster: "If I had volunteered for that committee position, maybe I would have got the promotion." The challenge, according to researchers, is tapping into the types of counterfactual thinking that are "particularly helpful when people need to recover and improve performance after negative events," says Roese.

In a recent article, Roese breaks down the process into five simple steps. We’ll use the example of the missed promotion opportunity to help illustrate. Let’s say a newly created management position in your organization was awarded to a colleague despite what you felt were several positive conversations with senior leadership during the selection process. Once your default failure behaviours are out of the way – be it a quick cry in a bathroom stall or a self-loathing rant to your spouse outlining all of your professional shortcomings – let these five steps guide you through a more positive, productive recovery.

1. Imagine a path not taken that leads to a better result. In this case, the best result is obvious: getting the management position. But the real work comes from analyzing the steps you might have taken to get there. "Make sure to focus on your own actions, not someone else’s," says Roese. Maybe it would have been helpful to volunteer for the strategic planning committee for a chance to make a good impression on senior leaders. Roese refers to this alternate path as an "upward counterfactual."

2. Now imagine a different path that also leads to that better result. When it comes to upward counterfactuals, two is better than one. Why is that? Fixating on the first thing that comes to mind sets you up for hindsight bias. "The apparent obviousness of the first alternative, now that you’ve thought of it, induces overconfidence; you begin to feel as though you were aware of it all along," explains Roese. Imagining an alternative path helps you resist the urge to narrow your focus on that one thing that could have made all the difference. In our example, consider how the end result might have changed had you formally prepared for your interviews, including a detailed list of your contributions and successful projects to date. Perhaps you missed a chance to remind leadership of your recent accomplishments.

3. Think about a different path that would have led to the same outcome. According to Roese, this provides you with an ‘even if’ scenario to "reveal obstacles you might not have noticed or articulated." Had you delegated responsibilities for a recent project to other team members, you might have had more time to focus on a successful bid for the promotion (by joining the strategic planning committee, for example). The point of this alternate path, however, is that even if you did, there’s still a chance you would have the same outcome. When you start to work through the obstacles, think of ways you could have overcome them. Maybe it was as simple as working with your supervisor to manage your workload so that you could participate in the committee while ensuring successful completion of the project.

4. Imagine the same path leading to a different outcome. The different outcome you envision could be better or worse. For example, what if something you said during the recruitment process led management to believe you were better suited for a position elsewhere in the organization, resulting in a less than ideal transfer. "One purpose of this step is to highlight the randomness in outcomes… If you’re going to recover effectively, it’s important to maintain a healthy respect for outside forces," explains Roese.

5. Now imagine a worse outcome. Considering a downward counterfactual is important firstly because it makes you feel good to know you avoided something worse and secondly because it helps "broaden your understanding of what just happened." If you found yourself tempted to, but ultimately didn’t, make disparaging comments about your colleague who was also vying for the promotion within earshot of upper management, the result may have cost you not only the promotion, but also been very damaging to your professional reputation. And when you think about it honestly, is it possible that a lack of maturity and professionalism manifested during the selection process in ways you didn’t previously consider? You might uncover a deeper perspective that ultimately helps you in the long run.

These five steps help you see the bigger picture while avoiding blame and bias. Having a clearer understanding of what you did or didn’t do to cause the setback means you’re in a much better position to perform better next time.


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