It’s Not About the Career Setback; It’s About the Comeback

Career setbacks happen, but how you react is what matters

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During the COVID-19 crisis, many of us have been working harder than ever. An analysis by Harvard Business School found that the average workday increased by 8.2 percent – or 48.5 minutes – during the early days of the pandemic. As workplaces reopen, it’s natural that many employees will want to be rewarded for the extra hours they put in over the past year.

The problem is that not everyone will get what they think they deserve. This could be for any number of reasons from outsized expectations to a lack of employer resources.

It’s natural to be disappointed in moments like this. The key is to remember that while you can’t control management decisions, you can control how you react to them. Those reactions are what people will remember – and they can have a huge impact on your career. In fact, I still reflect on how I handled a career-defining moment 15 years ago.

It was 2006, and I was told that it was my year to get promoted to executive director at a global bank I had worked at for the last nine years.  I was on an accelerated career track, and that year I was asked to take an overseas assignment. I was excited but also nervous about the opportunity, given I would be ‘out of sight’ in the New York office for a number of months during a pivotal year.  That said, I had done everything I was asked, and I was confident that I would be promoted and receive my new title in December.

The day before promotions were being announced, I was called in and told that it wasn’t going to happen that year. For a variety of reasons, I was ‘taken off the list’ at the last minute. 

I remember everything about that meeting- the room I was in, the feeling of shock that came rushing through me as the message was delivered, the fighting back tears, but most importantly the embarrassment that began to overwhelm me.   The day I had been looking so forward to became a day I would now dread, as my first thought was that people would wonder why I didn’t make it, when others did.

The following days were very difficult.  I didn’t want to engage with others, and I found reasons to stay in my office to avoid conversations. 

As I matured, gained more experience, and eventually became a CHRO, I realized how I could have played that situation so differently. Instead of shutting down, I should have listened, taken the feedback to heart and come back prepared to make changes where needed and calmly discuss areas where I disagreed with my managers.

In my current role, what I value and remember about our employees is how they handle adversity and difficult situations.

I often tell people that as they experience bad news, it’s important to think critically about their options before reacting. 

  • If you need time, ask for it.  You don’t have to respond in the moment.
  • Listen, and hold yourself back from being defensive
    • If there are counterpoints you want to make, you can share those after you have had time to reflect
  • Think about whether there is actually merit to the reason you didn’t get what you wanted
    • Are there things you didn’t consider?  Is there truth to the decision that you don’t want to accept?
  • Forget about embarrassment
    • The only person focused on your disappointment is you
  • Is it an “If” or a “when”?
    • If you were told you aren’t ready yet, find out exactly what you need to do to get there
    • If you are told it is never going to happen, decide if you are ok with that or if you should think about other opportunities

Careers are long, and on that journey, it is inevitable that you will experience disappointments, whether that means not getting promoted or being passed over for an opportunity.  In the end, all of those things matter far less than how you recover from those difficult moments.

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