Suffering from a career setback can be one of life’s most traumatic events. For many, after years of professional success, a big career disappointment such as getting fired or being passed over for a promotion may be their first taste of failure.
People might sink into anger or denial, blaming situational factors or company politics. Though that’s a natural response, it can also prevent them from breaking free of the destructive behaviours that may have derailed them in the first place.
People who successfully rebound from career losses – says Mitchell Lee Marks (San Francisco State University’s College of Business) take a different approach. They do the hard work of figuring out why they lost, identifying which new paths they could take, and then seizing the right
opportunity— whether that’s a different role in the same organization, a move to a new company, or a shift to a new industry or career.
Here is a practical 3-steps guidance for transforming anger and self-doubt over what seems like a failure into focused exploration about the fresh possibilities the situation presents.
First step: figure out why you lost. Instead of getting stuck in grief or blame, explore your contribution to what went wrong, gather feedback, and consider what you might have done differently. Gather feedback from a wide variety of people (including superiors, peers, and subordinates), making it clear that they want honest feedback, not consolation. Be aware that high achievers usually take too much credit for their successes and assign too much external blame for their failures. It’s a type of attribution bias that protects self-esteem but also prevents learning and growth. You might therefore find extremely difficult to go through this first stage.
Second step: identify new paths to take. Think hard about who you are and what you want. Take time to test out ideas. Speak to a career counselor, go back to school, or test-drive a career interest. The most powerful tool you can use for turning your loss into a win is reframing. that means seeing losses as opportunities, and involves hard thinking about what’s the positive in an apparently negative frame. Be aware that reframing is usually obstructed by escapism, a common reaction to career derailment. You may take trips to get away from your troubles, immerse yourself in busywork, drink or eat excessively, or avoid discussing your thoughts and plans with family and friends. While these behaviours can give you mental space to sort things out, they rarely lead to a productive transition.
Third step: seize the right opportunity. Reimagining your professional identity is one thing; bringing it to life is another. Consider your current needs and priorities—they may have changed over time. The right step forward could be a new role in the same company, a move to a new organization, or even a shift into a new career altogether. Remember, though, that you haven’t let your skills and experience behind with your last job, and you’ll also bring with you the lessons learned from the setback. At the same time, you might decide to put more discretionary effort into family life, volunteering, or hobbies, recognizing that having a rich personal life can compensate for not being number one on your team or in your organization. Revise your definition of success: needs and priorities can change dramatically over time. Be careful to not cling to the old ones!
Further readings: Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters (J. Sonnenfeld/A. Ward)