Develop recovery strategies

Perhaps in an ideal world things would never go wrong. But, of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and things will inevitably go wrong from time to time for each and every one of us. We can do our best before we reach that point to try to make sure that any such problems are avoided or, if they do happen, that their impact is kept to a minimum. But, we can never guarantee that something will not go wrong somewhere along the line. Rising to the challenges of things going wrong is an important part of life, of course, and also offers us a significant source of learning.

So, where does that leave us? Well, this is where the idea of ‘recovery strategies’ comes in. A recovery strategy is a means of trying to rectify a situation that has gone awry, a way of putting things right or at least get as close to that as possible. In many situations, sadly, there cannot be a recovery strategy – that is, the situation is irrecoverable (for example, when someone dies).

There is no limit to the number of potential recovery strategies that we could come up with. Examples of such strategies would include:

  • A decision is made that has an adverse effect on you. Can the decision be appealed or blocked in some other way? If not, can you get round it somehow?
  • You have unwittingly annoyed, upset or offended someone. Can you resolve the situation by apologising or otherwise undoing the harm done – for example, by clearing up any misunderstandings?
  • You have failed to achieve something in the way you had planned to – for example, trying to impress someone. Is there another way in which you can achieve it, another way of impressing that person?
  • You have lost someone’s email address and you need to send them a message. Can you get the address from a third party or perhaps phone the person to give them the message instead?

These are fairly straightforward examples, but recovery strategies can also be quite complex at times, depending on the circumstances. None the less, the logic remains the same. It is basically a process of saying to yourself: Something has gone wrong here; what are my options for putting it right as far as possible?

Note that I say options, plural. It is often the case that there will be more than one recovery strategy option available to us. So, this means that, at times, we will need to weigh up carefully the options available to make sure that we are putting ourselves into the strongest position for putting things right. Jumping in to the first one that comes to mind could prove to be very unwise.

A common obstacle to the use of recovery strategies is defeatism, the tendency for people to respond to something going wrong in a negative way, to moan about it and rail against it, rather than to seek to rectify the situation. This reaction will often prove problematic, as it means wrongs that could have been put right remain untouched.

Much of my work in various capacities over the years has involved helping people to recognise, develop and make full use of recovery strategies. Often, the possibility of drawing on one or more recovery strategies was being hampered by a sense of shock (ranging from mild to severe) as a result of whatever it was that had gone wrong. So, it is a valuable lesson to bear in mind that, whenever something does go wrong, we need to include a consideration of recovery strategies in our response to the situation we face.

Beware of cynicism

The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for dog, so to be cynical literally means to be dog like, in the sense of not caring, of being happy to let the world pass you by. It involves not making an emotional investment, of being detached and disengaged.

For many people cynicism is an emotional coping mechanism – if you don’t put your heart into something, you are much less likely to get hurt by it. And, without that emotional engagement, the result is likely to be negativity and defeatism. You can’t succeed at something if you don’t engage with it. But, equally, you can’t fail, which is a big part of the appeal of cynicism as a coping method – it is a protective mechanism.

Of course, you are highly unlikely to convince a cynic of this, as they will just dismiss the idea, not engage with it and, that way, be safe from it (or at least feel safe from it). Cynicism can be as a result of burnout, of emotional exhaustion – for example, as a result of work overload or being exposed to very stressful circumstances. But, we should not make the mistake of equating cynicism with burnout – many people have cynical tendencies without being even the slightest bit burnt out.

It can be helpful to think of cynicism as one extreme of a continuum, with a naïve idealism at the other extreme. In between the two is the healthy balance of scepticism. A sceptic is someone who questions, who does not take things at face value (which is what a naïve idealist would do), but who does not dismiss things as a matter of course (which, of course, is what a cynic is likely to do). A person adopting a sceptical approach avoids these two unhealthy extremes. By avoiding naïve idealism we are less open to being exploited by ruthless people who will seek to take advantage of any such naivety. And, by avoiding cynicism we avoid wallowing in negativity and the tendency to give up without trying.

Cynicism can be contagious, in the sense that just one cynical person can poison the atmosphere with negativity across a whole group of people. For example, I have come across many situations in which one person’s temporary absence can immediately contribute to a higher level of motivation and morale, while their presence normally undermines such things. We therefore have to be wary of not only any tendency towards cynicism we may have ourselves, but also the danger of being adversely affected by someone else’s cynicism.

In a sense, cynicism is a form of (negative) leadership. If we bear in mind that a key part of leadership is the ability to shape the culture in which they are operating, it is often the case that a cynic is dragging the culture down, contributing to negativity, defeatism and an unduly pessimistic outlook. Consequently, what is often required as a counterbalance to cynicism is positive leadership, the ability (and willingness) of one or more people to take the ethos or ‘mood’ in a more positive direction. This will free people up to be more motivated, more creative, more productive, more open to learning and, in all likelihood, happier.

There is no simple ‘cure’ or easy answer when it comes to cynicism, but there are things that can be done to guard against it, not least keeping the healthy balance of scepticism in mind. If in doubt, we can ask: is this a positive, constructive questioning stance that is being adopted, or does it cross the line into negative and dismissive cynicism?