How to Bounce Back From a Project Setback

March 31, 2022 Jamie Johnson

If you’ve recently taken on a new project at work or in your business, you may be excited about the new opportunity. But then you experience a significant setback, and it leaves you feeling disoriented and disappointed.

Nobody likes experiencing a setback at work, but these moments can be valuable lessons. Working through the challenge can ultimately help strengthen your team and make you better prepared to deal with these situations in the future.

If you’re wondering how to bounce back from a project setback, this article will outline six steps you can take.

Common Setbacks You Might Encounter

Setbacks can occur without any warning and come in all shapes and sizes. While this list certainly isn’t all-inclusive, here are some common setbacks you might encounter.

Problems With Your Team

A problematic team dynamic is one of the most common work-related challenges. In the book The Founder’s Dilemma, Noam Wasserman claims that 65% of startups fail due to conflicts among the founders.

The workplace can be a high-stress environment, and conflicting personalities can lead to tension or fighting. However, if you acknowledge and deal with these issues, it can leave your team stronger than it was before.


Anytime you’re working on a big project, there are a lot of moving parts. That means clear communication among team members is critical.

If the project manager doesn’t provide feedback or clear deliverables, this can cause all sorts of problems. Scheduling conflicts, timeline errors, and finger-pointing are just a few of the issues that can arise.

Personal Challenges

Sometimes personal issues will arise in your own life, making it challenging to show up the way you want to at work. A medical emergency, problems with your family, or any kind of disturbance at home can bleed into your ability to show up effectively for a work project.

Unforeseen Setbacks

And finally, unforeseen setbacks can arise that leave everyone reeling. Maybe you recently lost a major client, and it damaged team morale. Or maybe minor problems keep occurring with the project—you repeatedly encounter software issues, or perhaps the project scope is more extensive than anyone anticipated.

Or maybe the problem is that everyone is two years into a pandemic, and your team is attempting to collaborate remotely. Internet instability, virtual meetings, and time zone differences have left everyone a bit frazzled.

6 Steps to Bounce Back From a Project Setback

There’s no way to minimize the disappointment that comes with a significant setback, but specific actions will make it easier to bounce back and continue moving forward. Here are six steps to overcoming setbacks at work.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

The first step to recovering from any big setback is to acknowledge your feelings about it. It’s normal to feel discouraged, and it’s important to feel any negative emotions that come as a result. Pretending you aren’t angry or disappointed won’t make those feelings disappear.

However, resist the urge to blame other people for the setback. Process your own feelings, but if you want a successful project recovery, don’t react or lash out at other people on the team.

Show Up For Your Team

Once you’ve taken a time out for yourself, you need to be there for your team. Research shows that a leader’s feelings are contagious and can impact the mood of everyone in the group. So do what you need to do to move on from your own negative feelings so you can help the team process theirs.

But don’t try to sugarcoat the situation or make other people feel better. Avoid telling your team to “look on the bright side” or that you’re lucky everything worked out the way it did. Listen and validate their feelings and give your team members space if they need it.

Assess What Went Wrong

Once you’re in a more neutral place, take some time to assess what went wrong. What is the problem that caused the setback in the first place? For instance, if you lost a major client, take some time to think about why that happened.

Was that client simply the wrong fit for your business, or did the team fall short in some area? Evaluating what went wrong will help you figure out how to move forward and take steps to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

If you’re not sure what went wrong, it can help to ask other people for their assessment. You may be too close to the situation to analyze it objectively.

Keep an Open Mind

As you evaluate how to move forward, it’s essential to keep an open mind. If you’re only focused on one solution, then disappointment is inevitable, and you probably won’t learn much from that situation.

Maybe this setback is an opportunity to change your strategy and find an even more effective way to complete the project. Maybe you need to revisit your goals entirely. But you have to be open to learning those lessons.

Start Slowly Moving Forward

Once your team is ready, it’s time to reassess the situation and start moving forward. Take the time you need, but don’t dwell in disappointment for too long, as this will just keep you stuck.

Ask your team for feedback on what they think went wrong, and discuss what everyone can learn from the situation. Review your goals for the project, and work together to find a creative solution moving forward.

Focus on What You Can Control

Whenever you’re working toward a major goal, there are many factors that are outside of your control. That’s why it’s important to focus on the things you can control. Break your tasks down into small, manageable pieces and focus on taking action every day. As long as you continue to make progress, you’ll eventually come out on the other side.

The Bottom Line

Setbacks are inevitable, and the way you recover from disappointment will determine your success going forward. You can let a major setback derail you, or you can use it as an opportunity to pivot and develop resilience. Many of the most significant breakthroughs occur when someone encounters a major challenge and figures out a way to overcome it.


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About the Author

Jamie Johnson

Jamie Johnson is a freelance writer who teaches others how to start their own freelance writing careers. She covers topics related to small business, entrepreneurship, and personal finance. She currently writes for clients like Business Insider, Bankrate, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Quicken Loans.

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