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Dealing Well with Career Setbacks

Dilbert cartoon on career setbacks - secret objectives!

Defining Career Setbacks

Career setbacks are felt in all manner of ways. From missing out on promotions to not being appointed a project lead or being told “no” for something that really matters to you. The question is less about how to avoid career setbacks but rather how to deal with them well. Of course, we can each minimize setbacks by performing well, having a “can-do” attitude, and being a team player but we cannot eliminate them. At some stage, we all experience a career setback of some sort. 

Let’s use the example of Sophia. Sophia was approached to speak at a leading event in Singapore about cyber security within small businesses. She is thrilled to be asked and excited to do it, but she knows the company likes to maintain a low public profile given their government work. Undeterred, Sophia approached her manager and asked for support to speak at the event. To her great delight, she was given the green light! Shortly afterward she recorded the keynote address and was waiting for the event to arrive in a week so she could see it for herself. A few days later she received a phone call from her manager. She had to get the video address pulled from the agenda, Sophia was devasted! Her big moment unexpectedly pulled. At that moment, she could react in several ways, some constructive and some destructive to her career.

At the time, she was thankful it was a phone call, and no one could see her face. What could she do to handle the situation well, notwithstanding her disappointment?

Handling Disappointment Well

There are three steps to handling a career setback well:

  1. Keep your fleeting feelings well and truly hidden 
  2. Accept it with dignity and grace
  3. Use the experience to bounce back better

You may be thinking: why keep feelings of disappointment or resentment within the moment, hidden. Isn’t it better to let them out so you can let them go? No, it isn’t. There is a time and a place for everything and whining or venting at work is a luxury that leaders do not have. Negative attitudes are infectious and can taint the team for much longer than the fleeting moment we hold onto the anger or resentment in the first place! As leaders, we cannot allow our own disappointments to impact our performance, or that of the team. We don’t have to look much further than the damage political disagreements have on the cohesion and performance of the party and its representatives – it happens the world over! It’s divisive and destructive to the wider team.

So, how do we handle setbacks with grace and dignity?

Look at the situation with composure, understanding, and respect for the decision. An effective strategy is to adopt a mindset that recognizes the efforts of others in reaching this point (i.e.: up to the point before the setback). Life rarely goes exactly as we want it to, however when we manage our emotions to handle the situation with honour, openness, and respect then future opportunities remain possible. 

In the face of adversity or career setbacks, bouncing back is the best “revenge”, so to speak. In other words, we counter adversity with resilience.

Back to Sophia’s career setback

Going back to Sophia’s case. Hearing the news that her big moment was being pulled undoubtedly evoked disappointment, and some upset. In those few minutes, her ability to act with grace under pressure will set her apart as both a good leader and a team player! Her response could be: “I understand, these things can happen. Could you help me understand the reason for management’s decision to pull this speaking event?”

Handling the disappointment of the moment with an open and positive mindset goes a long way in creating long-term goodwill and rapport with management, peers, and our team. 

Final Thoughts

Whenever we face a disappointment or a setback, we can either melt in defeat or we can keep putting one foot in front of the other and move forward. Successful leaders dig deep, stay strong and demonstrate grit. It’s about simply getting on with it, and being positive about the future, even in the face of disappointments or career setbacks.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on the best approaches you’ve used or seen to manage career setbacks or challenges in a constructive way.  

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Scott Adams, Dilbert

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