David Wray

AdaptingCareer setbacksChangeOvercome ChallengesPerformance ManagementResilience

Turning the Tide on a Career Setback

Dilbert cartoon depicting a career setback being turned around into a positive moment. Credit: Scott Adams
Credit: Scott Adams

A career setback comes in all shapes and sizes

It probably doesn’t take long to identify a career setback moment where we did not get a role, a promotion, or an opportunity that we wanted. Not getting something that we want happens, how we react to it defines the long-term implications of the setback. In these, sometimes painful moments, it is helpful to remember:

“In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”

Albert Einstein

Career setbacks can happen for any number of reasons, for instance:

  • Being unable to adapt to differences
  • A betrayal or loss of trust
  • Failure to build a team
  • Insensitivity to others
  • Arrogance

The complete setback list is, unsurprisingly, much longer!

The easiest way to learn a skill is through practical application, so let’s do that using the “being unable to adapt to differences” career stalling behaviour.

Pietro joined ABC Company, a North American engineering multinational, last year and is still struggling to adapt to its culture. His prior Asian company experience was vastly different. Pietro appreciates cultures focused on preserving relationships, first and foremost, and allowing others to save face. Issues are managed without direct confrontation, usually by framing things as opportunities for improvement rather than “errors”. ABC Company’s culture is very different. It is direct, immediate, and action-oriented. Results are valued more than “how things are done”.

The impact: Pietro is seen by his peer executives as weak, indecisive, and too “touchy-feely”. A large acquisition is in the works, Pietro wants to lead given his specialty in acquisition integration, but ABC’s leadership team think he is the wrong leadership choice. Pietro feels deflated but vows to turn it around, if only he knew where to begin…

Prevention is the best career setback protection

Ben Franklin’s idiom “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is helpful in choosing to adopt a useful mindset throughout life. We know from experience that it is less painful to prevent a problem, than having to incur the time, effort, and expense of fixing it. A useful mindset established brings us one step closer to prevention. We start with recognition before swiftly moving into action.

Being unable to adapt to a difference is a common career staller, and one a coach is called in for regularly. It might include things like:

  • Having trouble adapting to new management, company strategy, culture, philosophies, or plans and programs
  • Vocally disagreeing with the company’s mission, vision, values, or tactical approaches
  • Not doing well with people one disagrees with

There are many reasons and causes for these behaviours, but the question that matters most is: What can we do about it?

Identify possible remedies for the career setback

Understand the root cause behaviours

We are each a product of our life experiences, from beliefs to values to behaviours. Why do I mention this now? 

Recognizing this reality opens the door for change, willingness becomes the catalyst to subsequently bring it to life.

Using a simple common example to illustrate.

Serge grows up rarely hearing the word “no” and is repeatedly told he’s the smartest kid in the world and can do anything he wants in life. His experiences developed competitiveness in Serge, where he was driven to win at any cost. This ultimately resulted in Serge developing arrogant attitudes and behaviours.

Fast forward many years Serge, now an adult is struggling to fit into his work team. He has little patience or tolerance for what he perceives as “stupid people or processes”. Team tensions are palpable, productivity is low and team members actively avoid Serge when they can. 

When Serge recognizes that his childhood experience has carried into his behaviour as an adult, it is the first step to accepting that his arrogance, left unchanged, will grind his career to a screeching halt!

Arrogance is one example of a reason that an individual is unable to adapt to differences. Some other examples include:

  • Hoping things will change without putting in any effort
  • Being a perfectionist
  • Holding on tightly to one’s own ideas
  • Struggling with diversity
  • Avoiding conflicting views and opinions
  • Relying on tried and tested ways
  • Being very smart and successful

Take remedial actions to fix the root causes identified

Armed with the knowledge of what types of behaviours lead to this particular career staller, our focus quickly shifts to turning it around.

A table describing Career setback behaviours and corrective actions. Copyright David Wray

I always advocate working through change with someone who has your best interests at heart. It may be a trusted friend, a coach, or a spouse (remember that the closer the relationship, sometimes the harder it is to remain objective). If in doubt about whether the person is doing it for you or for their own reasons, move on and choose someone else. 

Change takes time, commitment, and a willingness to be vulnerable. The change curve captures the messiness of the process, it is a normal part of growth and a topic for a future blog.

A change curve diagram from existing status quo to new status quo through resistance, chaos, transformation, integration and acceptance.
Credit: unknown author
Applying the learning to our example

Recall the impact: Pietro is seen by his peer executives as weak, indecisive, and too “touchy-feely”. A large acquisition is in the works, Pietro wants to lead given his specialty in acquisition integration, but ABC’s leadership team thinks he is the wrong leadership choice. Pietro feels deflated but vows to turn it around, if only he knew where to begin…

Pietro can actively check his views and ideas about always behaving in a non-direct manner in ABC Company. Have his views become a rigid value on the best way to behave given his earlier experiences? Through reflection, Pietro realizes he needs to adapt his behaviour in order to avoid stalling his career and embarks on a journey to develop his command skills. In doing so, he will learn to lead well, encourage tough conversations, end debate and move on when needed, manage a crisis well and face adversity head-on.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Section or comment below to share your views, tips, and tricks on how you recognize and change behaviours that lead to career setbacks.

Give it a try!

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