Experiencing a career setback - whether that's being fired, passed over for promotion, or having one of your key projects implode - can feel catastrophic. A large part of our identity is tied to our profession, so experiencing a setback can result in experiencing a loss of self-worth and heightened anxiety about the future.
However, people experience career setbacks all the time, what differs is how each person approaches it. You can choose to languish in despair for an interminable amount of time (and everyone is allowed their time to grieve) or you can try to become proactive, and see it as an opportunity for changing your life for the better.
Here, we run through a list of ways to approach a career setback which will ensure you emerge from it with renewed passion for life and your career.
August 7, 2018
1. Analyse why it happened and learn from it
In some cases, you may face a career setback that is entirely beyond your control, for example, if your company goes bankrupt or your branch of the company is shut down. However, in most other cases, there will be factors you contributed to the setback in question.
Almost everyone faces some kind of career setback at some point in their lives, and so you should try not to allow yourself to reflect negatively on your core skills or personality traits. There is no point pining about something you don’t have - unless it involves an honest appraisal of whether or not you are suited to the role you are currently in.
Instead, try to take away important lessons and greater understanding that will allow you to more easily mitigate problems in future. Try to analyse where exactly you went wrong, and how you can avoid doing so in the same way in future. It’s not about never failing again, it’s about failing better.
"Sometimes setbacks feel like they’ve shattered your professional plans," says James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at the non-profit CompTIA. But you should instead be looking for ways to succeed beyond this setback, he says. "Then, you can start looking at professional behaviours, knowledge and skills you can obtain so that you can bounce back in style." If you don’t fully understand the reasoning behind a decision, such as your boss's choice to pass you over for a certain opportunity, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Was it that you weren’t a good fit for that particular company, manager, or team? Or are you fundamentally ill-suited to the role or the industry? If it's the latter, this will obviously involve a greater deal of soul searching and research into what your next step should be.
2. Stay positive
This is easier said than done, but try not catastrophise about your career setback. Remind yourself that in all likelihood, it’s not that bad. Even if you lost your job, try to reframe it as an opportunity to start out on a different, more fortuitous path - an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, or start completely afresh.
Any setback like this can understandably be damaging to your self-esteem and make you feel down, just try to keep the moping period to a minimum and instead begin planning for the future.
One method for preventing yourself from feeling too downhearted is to examine how you structure your thoughts. Instead of thinking highly self-critical thoughts such as, ‘I am an incompetent manager’ or, ‘People always hate me', instead try to ground self-critical thoughts in this particular situation, without evading responsibility.
For example, ‘I didn’t do my best work here’ or, ‘I made some mistakes in how I handled that issue’. Remember, the longer you spend feeling sorry for yourself, the longer it is until you can begin to bounce back. "A career setback can be a blessing in disguise, especially if you handle the setback the right way," says Brooks Israel, co-founder and managing partner of The Hiring Group, an IT and engineering recruitment agency. "Be humble, own your setback and move forward with your career and life."
5. Seek support from a wide network
Following a setback, it's natural to withdraw into yourself and not open up to others. This could be for reasons of shame, or an assumption that they won’t be able to help you.
However, speaking with others is likely to help you feel better, and may even provide you with useful insight.
Your first points of contact will probably be family and friends, but when a short amount of time has passed, you should seek out colleagues or mentors who you can speak to about your career. They may well be able to give you useful advice and guidance on what to do next. If you've lost your job, reach out to people in your network that you think could possibly have interesting job leads for you.
6. Take a step back
In the event of a career crisis, it's natural to become heated and emotional. Everyone is entitled to a period of mourning, but in time try to regain calm, and take a step back from the situation so you can survey it from a more neutral, objective standpoint. Don’t make any rash decisions while you are still in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
If you’ve always been a high achiever, then failure may hit you exceptionally hard. This is because this group of people are more likely to attribute successes to their own abilities, while laying failure at the feet of external, ‘uncontrollable’ circumstances. This shields their own ego, but also prevents learning and development taking place. For these people, it is harder to rationalise and cope with failure.
If suffering from a loss of identity resulting from no longer feeling the successful business person you once did, why not try investing in areas of your life that give you pleasure but that you may have deprived of attention in recent years. This could be family, friends, volunteering, hobbies, sport, interests or learning new skills like a language. You shouldn’t derive your self worth solely from work, and focusing on these other areas may help give you a more balanced view of yourself.
Also engaging in an experience to help you 'decompress' could also be useful. For some this may entail heading into the country or to the coast, for others it may involve taking a long cycle or doing a session of yoga or painting. These activities can help calm you and help you to regain perspective.