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This article is part of a series about how we tried to help our teenage son through his secondary school career, using techniques and practices from the workplace. For an overview of all articles, a good place to start is the introduction (introduction to this article series), where I set the scene and at links to all subsequent articles.
This specific episode is about dealing with bad news.
After a few tough months of monitoring, trying to motivate, offering help, asking questions, making detailed schedules together and - unfortunately - poor results, our son went into his 4th grade exams with low expectations. A successful result would be nothing less than a miracle. We knew that even before the first exam had started. And even though it was no surprise, it felt bad going to school together to receive a terrible result. While the teacher committee kept telling us in way too many sentences that this result was simply not good enough to go the next grade in the same track, starting to give a place to the disappointment was hard.
We did not speak much on the way home, but only one or two days later a new challenge appeared on the horizon: finding a new school and a totally different track. This must have been some of the toughest couple of days we’ve went through together, as our son did not seem to show any interest in anything whatsoever anymore. Not only had he given up on his previous study, apparently he had developed a very deep resentment to literally everything even remotely related to school. There were some real moments of despair. Anger. Yelling at each other. Not pleasant at all.
But then, one day we decided to stop using the word “school” in our quest to find a new place where he could learn new stuff next year. We tried to shift focus to things that he was interested in at a more generic level. Stuff like games, building digital assets, connecting online with virtual friends. And after a short discovery round, we found out that there are study tracks that at least have some relation with these areas of interest. And we even managed to get him in the car to visit the place that is now his new school and signed him up for multimedia.
A couple of months into the new year, we see that the time and effort he’s putting into study has not much evolved from last year. But his overall results have significantly improved compared to last year and he’s getting overall positive feedback from his teachers. On several occasions, he shared some of the animations and illustrations he’s made in school and even talks with enthusiasm about some of the teachers. We’re not there yet, but there is a spark again that had gone missing long ago. And we’re really happy for this new opportunity to start moving forward again!
When confronted with bad news, emotions kick in. And that’s a good thing. When you feel somewhere between slightly disappointed or even utterly devastated when something went wrong, it is clear evidence that you care. That it touches you. Give these emotions the time and space to sink in and embrace them. While you are on an emotional high, it is not often a good idea to make important decisions or dive into some heavy discussions.
Since the bad results were imminent for some time, we were fortunate that we could prepare ourselves for the bad news some time in advance. In retrospect, we might have even started looking for a new school or curriculum earlier on, but the school system does not really encourage you to: you tend to follow the cadence of evaluations throughout the year and are not really inclined to change schools in the middle of the year unless you’re told to.
Anyway, the evaluation stated that our son was excluded from the next grade in his current curriculum. Tough message. But there’s nothing you can do to change it. As from there, all the energy you put into fighting or resisting it is basically wasted. So, the sooner you can face reality, the sooner you can channel your energy into discovering your next step. Ideally with a positive mindset.
People are usually good at finding solutions for problems. We even have a strong tendency to dive in feet first, way before we have a good understanding of the challenge at hand. But in this case, that came in handy. We basically had to find a new class and even a new school. Maybe overwhelmed by the emotions, our son was actually not very motivated to look at new schools. Just the word school itself was like a red flag being waved at a bull at that point, so we started looking just at what type of activities did spark some interest. Turned out that was in the area of graphical and game design. Based on that, we could at least start to look into existing offerings in the neighbourhood. With a clear goal that we could not wait very long to make a decision for next year.
And so it happened that a few days later we paid a visit to what is new his new school. Going there and talking with some of his future teachers, being able to see and feel that they approach education differently than before and getting a glimpse of how things would evolve, pulled him over the line to sign up there.
Lots of practical things needed to be taken care of after that, but starting to move forward again was really crucial before even starting to think about the rest.
Shit happens at the workplace too. We all make mistakes, we all miss a target every now and then. It is a very common saying that every failure is an opportunity to learn. And yet, it is not always easy to see that while you’re still in the middle of it.
While the majority of what we do at work is much more work of the mind, we are all still human beings trying to do stuff together. We do not leave the emotional part of our being at home when we walk out the door on the way to the office. So when things go wrong, it is best to recognise that people involved may have certain feelings about that. It is a good thing to acknowledge those, give each other a moment to let them sink in.
Dealing with emotions at work requires a great deal of trust among team members. It’s a topic I expect to touch in future episodes. But in short, everyone on the team has a responsibility to help establish this on a team. As a manager, it’s crucial to show interest in the human being that each of your team member is. Help establish a culture where it feels safe to be oneself. And make people feel that wins are worth celebrating, but losses are equally absorbed and learned from as a team. As a team member, given a safe environment it is equally important to contribute transparently to a culture of openness. If you’re in trouble, your project seems to be getting off the rails, don’t be afraid to seek help. The sooner, the better. In the end, people will find out somehow anyway. And the longer that takes, the worse it often gets.
The steps we took to move forward after a (major) setback with our son are generic enough to apply in the workplace as well: let the emotional reaction sink in, accept what has happened, look at your options to get on track again and then take that first step forward again.