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The Downward Spiral: How to Stop, Reverse, and Embrace Your Failures


Equipped with your existing abilities, you enter into your work environment where you are provided certain resources. Given your view of yourself and that of your environment, you form an initial judgment of your ability to do your work. A low sense of confidence creates anxiety on the job whereas more confidence might lead you to feel excited.


Now you’re faced with a task you’re not familiar with or one that is complex. You give this task a try, but the feedback you receive is nonspecific, not accurate, or not timely. Based on the little information you have, you come up with an explanation for your failure. It just happens to be wrong.


Your manager criticizes you when you fail and praises you when you succeed. It is no surprise, then, that after you experience failure, her criticism stings you and makes you feel even less confident than you felt when you started the job. Your lowered confidence negatively affects your performance. Again, you get incorrect feedback from your manager and then wrongly interpret the reasons for your failure. And again, your manager criticizes you. Your confidence plummets even lower.


But you have to keep going, so you take on another task about which you are uncertain or which is overly complex. Despite your best wishes, there is no improvement in your performance. At this point, you conclude that your lack of success is due to your inadequacies, to bad luck, or to not having enough control over the situation. Even still, you label yourself as a loser. Even when your manager tries to persuade you to the contrary, it has little effect. You become increasingly anxious or frustrated which further decreases your belief in your ability to succeed.


You try a third task and still experience poor performance. You begin to process information in an automatic fashion about your failures and potential successes and start expecting to fail. Others around you might also start to label you as incompetent. This makes you that much more anxious and further erodes your confidence, but you decide to give it one more try.


Again, the task is complex. When you continue to experience poor performance, you either give up or procrastinate to avoid the pain of another anticipated failure.


The scenario above describes a “downward spiral.” If this sounds all too familiar, what can you do? This article will break down your experience, helping you gain insight into how to stop, reverse, and embrace such spirals so you can experience the success you desire.


Self-Efficacy Spirals


Downward spirals, as described in the scenario above, are one of three types of spirals. The opposite spiral, of course, is an upward spiral in which you experience success in place of failure. The final spiral is what is known as a self-correcting spiral. To understand the nature of each of these spirals and their significance, we first have to define an important term.


In our busy and demanding world, we seek to find ways to become more efficient, so we can get more done in less time, and effective, so we can focus on activities that yield the greatest outcomes. While we know about efficiency and effectiveness, a third concept to consider is efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to perform a task. It can make or break your success because it affects the tool you need most to help you move ahead, namely, the mind.


While we’ve already mentioned that downward spirals are associated with failure and upward spirals are associated with success, we need to understand the basic tenets of these mechanisms. In the psychological literature, these phenomena are called self-efficacy spirals. The reason there is a distant relationship between our efficacy beliefs and success or failure is because of the interdependent nature between self-efficacy and performance.

The more we believe in our ability, the more likely we will pursue a task. The more successful we are in accomplishing a task, the more we believe in our ability to do so in the future. According to Albert Bandura, a psychologist who wrote a lot about the construct of self-efficacy, our expectations are shaped by our beliefs and they affect our goal setting, the amount of effort we put into a goal, and how persistent we are in coping to overcome obstacles when pursuing that goal.


This cyclical nature reflects the model taught in meditation practice. Meditation is a tool used to build mindfulness. The more you are mindful of your inner world, the more you can work to increase you sense of confidence, for example, and decrease your fears. But the point of mindfulness is to take your new-found awareness into the outside world. It is when you create changes in your life that you are using your mindfulness to bridge your outer and inner worlds. And, when you see your efforts manifest into success, you internalize that success which allows you to continue to grow internally.


Coming back to the self-correcting spiral, what we see is that performance and self-efficacy initially decrease, but this decrease is followed by an increase in either performance or self-efficacy. How does this happen?


Imagine you attempt to write code, but you don’t get the results you want. You try again and again and each attempt is followed by disappointment. If you expected your knowledge and efforts to translate into success but they don’t, this may affect your belief in your ability to get the project off the ground. As a result, you may procrastinate working on it or just give up. But perhaps after a cooling off period, you review your steps and realize your mistake which leads you to taking a more successful approach. Your self-efficacy just increased, so you sit back down and try again, hence increasing your performance.


However, the same situation can happen in reverse order. You attempt your code and find that it works time and time again. This builds up your self-efficacy, but can lead to you become overly confident and complacent. You decide since you’re so good at what you do, you don’t have to try so hard. You are less motivated at figuring out what is leading to your continued success. The result over the next succession of tasks reflects this change in effort and ends up leading to some failure as you experience a ceiling effect. Once again, your self-efficacy decreases as does your performance.


The name of the game is to understand the cause-and-effect nature of task performance. When you understand why your efforts lead to either success or failure, by keeping your finger on the pulse, you are increasing your chances of future successes. Otherwise, you are at risk for becoming overconfident. Therefore, the purpose of the self-correcting spiral is to turn your complacency that follows a chain of successes into a downward spiral that keeps you in check. This process is there to promote learning which keeps you moving in a vertical direction to achieve greater success over time. And it works in both directions.


How Spirals Get Started


There are three rules to self-efficacy spirals:

  1. You must have attempted a minimum of three tasks

  2. Spirals are not dependent on success or failure

  3. Optimal learning and performance result when you learn from your mistakes

In order to stop or reverse a downward spiral, we first have to understand what gets them started and what maintains them. In their article, Dana H. Lindsey and colleagues discuss three factors that lead to spirals, including feedback, task uncertainty and complexity, and task experience. Some of these were discussed in the example at the start of this article, but to better understand their contribution to a spiral, let’s break them down.


Feedback

Feedback is an important element for continued success or for preventing a downward spiral. It requires us to look at what we have done and see both whether or not it is working and why. In a traditional work context, feedback refers to information received from a manager or supervisor whose job it is to examine your work and share their expertise and knowledge about your performance. To be effective, feedback needs to be accurate, timely, and specifically address the cause-and-effect nature of your performance. Feedback that misses the mark on any of these three factors is ineffective and can start a spiral.


If you work on tasks, especially challenging ones where you have less knowledge or experience, it is crucial for you to receive effective feedback. Assert your needs and ensure you have clear communication between you and your boss.


Task Uncertainty and Complexity

When you are trying out a task that is completely new, not only to yourself but to your boss or organization, it is likely that even the person to whom you report will not know the causal relationship of your performance to the outcome. This ignorance means you are unlikely to receive the feedback you need. Similarly, when tasks are complex, there could be more than one cause-and-effect factor, which translates into less clarity and more possible confusion. The less you understand what leads to success, the higher your chances of failure and the greater the likelihood of a spiral starting.


If you are truly working on an original project, keep expectations realistic. Expect to ride the wave of self-efficacy spirals and know that they are there to promote your long-term learning. Rather than becoming attached to your immediate results, stay focused on the big picture and prepare yourself for turbulence. If, however, your task is only new to you but has been done before, consider consulting with someone else who has experience with it, even if it means finding a mentor outside your place of work.


Task Experience

When experience is low, if you are successful in your attempt, you may make mistaken attributions for your success. This misinformation can lead you to taking a wrong turn, or as mentioned earlier, to become overconfident, which can start a spiral going. During this early period, the focus is on increased learning. We are learning about causality, what leads to success, what leads to failure, and why these relationships exist. Note that our self-efficacy is strongly affected by initial successes or failures. So the more we fail initially, for example, the weaker our self-efficacy beliefs and the lower we can expect our performance to be. Thus, the more experience you have on a given task, the less likely you are to enter into a spiral.


What Keeps Spirals Going


You got yourself into a pickle. But that’s just the beginning of the story. There are four factors that keep spirals going that you need to pay attention to, including attributions, automatic information processing, emotional arousal, and expectations and labels.


Attributions

In a similar fashion to the importance of feedback being accurate, attributions or the causality you assign to your task performance is important. Accurate attributions can help you correct your behaviors when you are otherwise making errors. On the flip side, we are at great risk for making what is known in social psychology as an “attribution error.”


There are three types of attribution errors. An internal attribution is when you attribute failures or successes to yourself. While surely you might at times contribute to a task’s failure, its failure alone does not necessarily mean you are at fault. Often there are external factors that contribute to a lack of success. Alternatively, you might attribute all the blame to external factors and not take any responsibility for mistakes made. This is an attempt to conserve your self-efficacy because when faced with failure, if we attribute the failure to ourselves, we will become anxious.


A second type of attribution error is focused on stability. Because spirals occur after three or more consecutively stable wins or losses, you are likely to attribute the win or loss to a stable factor. This can lead to discouragement. Conversely, when you attribute the win or loss to instability, such as “I didn’t invest adequate effort into this,” the loss is less likely to affect your self-efficacy.


Lastly, when you attribute failure to an uncontrollable factor, you are making a third type of attribution error. That is because when you see yourself having control over the process, you are more likely to self-correct. It is when you believe you have no control that you end up feeling frustrated, anxious, or helpless and continue the downward spiral.

When you attribute your failure to internal, stable, and uncontrollable factors you are more certain to remain in a spiral.


Automatic Information Processing

When your performance outcomes are repeated, you are more likely to process information related to those outcomes in an automatic fashion which is quicker and more superficial. It is recommended that, instead, you continue pursuing in-depth forms of feedback.This can be seen in organizations who year after year yield success. They stop analyzing and learning and instead focus on maintaining stability. Over time, they start to decline due to this belief that they are invulnerable.


Emotional Arousal

We are emotional beings and our experience at work is no exception. Our performance affects how we feel and how we feel can impact our performance. We’ve already mentioned the importance of attributions, the meanings we give to our results. The next step in the chain is to consider how the way that we think affects how we feel at work. When we make attributions that are internal, stable, and uncontrollable, we are more likely to feel a sense of despair, which will negatively affect our efficacy, and thus our performance.


If you’re feeling discouraged or frustrated, you are more likely to be in a negative mood and this will lead you to interpreting information through a more negative lens associated with low self-efficacy. If you are filled with fear, your arousal may interfere with your performance. When emotional arousal is high, spirals become more prominent.


Expectations and Labels

The Pygmalion effect is when your expectations become your reality. High expectations lead to high performance while low expectations lead to poor performance. This is not only true of your expectations of yourself, but other people’s expectations of your performance have just as much of an impact. When you have a stable outcome over time, you may start adopting a label for yourself as a “winner” or “loser.”


How to Stop a Downward Spiral


While it may be easier to avoid a spiral than to stop or change it, there are two ways to stop a spiral. As you’ll see, these techniques are both cognitive and behavioral in nature.


Redefining Success and Failure

One of the main reasons we experience lowered self-efficacy is because we are attached to the idea of success as a reflection of our ability. But Lindsey and colleagues suggest that “…success is not based on the outcome, but it comes from the information gained via the task attempt.” By redefining your success as what you’ve learned as opposed to what you’ve accomplished, you can stop a downward spiral and help preserve your self-efficacy. When you define success in this way, you only fail if you do not learn. Even when you obtain the results you set out for, if you do not learn something new and simply rely on what made you successful in the past, you are not truly successful by this new definition.


Given what we know about what leads to downward spirals and what keeps them going, by seeing your successes as opportunities to experiment, attain high quality feedback, reduce arousal, and decrease automatic processing of information, you are helping to stop the spiral.


Small Wins and Losses

As mentioned earlier, some of what can lead to failed attempts is task complexity. When the tasks you are going after are too big, focus your efforts on small chunks. Break tasks down to simplify your mission. This will reduce the risk of massive failures, provide more opportunities for learning, and help you build up your self-efficacy when you have small wins. This will have a positive effect on your emotional arousal as well.


Breaking Down the Spiral

Returning to the example of a downward spiral cited at the start, we can now put the puzzle pieces together to understand what happened. Recall that the task you were given was either one with which you were unfamiliar or one that was complex. We now know these sorts of tasks can start a spiral. To exacerbate the process, the feedback provided by your manager was completely ineffective due to its general, inaccurate, and untimely manner. You then made an attribution error based on the little information you had to go on.


Rather than be supportive, your manager puts fuel to the fire and criticizes you. This negatively affects your self-efficacy, which has a negative influence on your performance moving forward. Your unsupportive manager provides you with ineffective feedback and more criticism and you continue to make attribution errors, which further decrease your self-efficacy. So not only did you experience failure already, you are set to fail the next time around.


The second go-around has the same outcome in performance. You not only make attribution errors, but you start labeling yourself as a loser. You become emotionally aroused, feeling anxious about any future possibility of success and frustrated about your past failures. Your self-efficacy suffers some more.


Once you experience three or more of these cycles, you automatically process information and the expectation of failure becomes second nature. Now others start to label you what you’ve already labeled yourself, which confirms your beliefs in your inability and escalates your anxiety. When it becomes too much, your coping changes to avoidance.


Reversing the Spiral

Now that we’ve dissected the downward spiral, let’s look at where we could intervene to reverse it. Here are nine strategies to consider:

  1. Break down your complex task into smaller chunks to reduce your losses, increase your chances at small wins, and correspondingly, your self-efficacy.

  2. Request specific, accurate, and timely feedback from your manager. If you know when you’ll be done with your task, schedule a meeting with your manager for the deadline date or just before to review your performance and elicit detailed information about the causal relationship between your performance and the end result.

  3. To avoid attribution errors, focus on which internal and external factors contributed to the outcome. Try to stay objective and share your conclusions with your manager during your meeting to see if, based on their experience, they agree. This can help you take additional factors into consideration when taking your next stab at a work task.

  4. If your manager is unsupportive or even critical, let them know you need them to change their tune. Assert your right to get your needs met so you can perform at your best.

  5. Avoid labeling yourself. This is most easily accomplished when you focus on learning rather than achieving, as mentioned earlier, and corresponds to redefining your successes and failures.

  6. Manage your emotions. Lindsey and colleagues report that high emotional arousal, whether it is high excitement or intense anxiety, can negatively affect performance. Because there is a relationship between our thoughts and feelings, when we avoid self-labeling or associating our worth with our production, we are more likely to stay even keeled.

  7. Pursue in-depth feedback rather than resort to automatic information processing. Look beyond the surface to understand what is causing the outcome you are getting.

  8. Manage your expectations. To avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy, even in the face of failure, you need to stay positive. Focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want. Incorporate positive self-talk and ensure you have a growth mindset when approaching challenges and when facing defeat.

  9. Use adaptive coping. We all face obstacles and difficult situations, but what matters most is how we cope. Adaptive coping includes focusing on solutions when faced with a problem or as a first step, managing our emotions so that eventually we can problem-solve. Maladaptive coping is, simply, avoidance. When we avoid we may sidestep stress in the moment, but long-term we have not solved the problem. It will continue to come back and haunt us.

Conclusion


It is inevitable that we will face challenges, obstacles, and failures on the job. Rather than having unrealistic expectations for perfection, recognizing that we make mistakes and that they serve us by teaching us how to improve our future performance can help us avoid a downward spiral.


The key to success is to focus on learning. This is true when we experience both failures and successes because the goal is to understand what specific performance behaviors leads to specific outcomes.


While the journey can be emotionally grueling at times, seek out encouragement and effective feedback. Remember that no one result defines you. For every failure you experience, there were likely several past successes as well. Be prepared to self-correct even in the event of success for a ceiling effect. When it is upon you, you’ll be able to prevent a negative spiral from starting.

When downward spirals bottom out and you cannot perform any worse, focus on self-correcting your performance or self-efficacy beliefs. Otherwise, no increases will take place and you become more likely to experience apathy or quit.