Career Setbacks


By Kevin-James Fenech 

In today’s day and age, it is becoming increasing ‘normal’ for all managers, even the high fliers, to suffer a career setback. Only the very lucky or the extremely well connected escape this harsh reality. 

The truth is that even the very best at some stage in their career slip up and what defines them is how they deal with it. It doesn’t matter if the career setback is your fault (you underperformed or made a mistake) or if it isn’t your fault (your boss feared you and did everything to undermine you) what matters is how you deal with it. 

My first piece of advice is to be aware of the stages people generally tend to go through when faced with a serious career setback. According to the Kübler-Ross model we tend to go through five emotional stages: (1) denial (2) anger (3) bargaining (4) depression and (5) acceptance. DABDA for short. 

Applying this to a hypothetical example: 

You just been dismissed even though you thought you were doing well. First reaction: you can’t believe it and your brain keeps fighting reality (‘…this can’t be happening to me’). Second: the setback has sunk-in and you are now very angry (think John McEnroe ‘You can’t be serious’ type of yell). Also, you keep asking yourself ‘why me’. Third:  You try to negotiate in your mind the situation (‘…God please make this just a bad dream from which I wakeup from and I promise to…’) Fourth: You sulk. You feel sorry for yourself. Fifth: You accept the reality of it all and move on. 

Unfortunately, a lot of high achievers never make it to the ‘acceptance’ stage. Put another way, they just can’t forgive themselves. According to decades of research on the subject, high achievers typically assign too much blame on themselves for their failures much in the same way as they give themselves too much credit when they are successful. I think they refer to it as ‘attribution bias’. The point being that most successful managers run the risk of never getting over a career setback. 

My second piece of advice is to be emotionally nimble and quick to adapt to your new circumstances. You need to quickly regroup your thoughts and emotions and calmly conjure up ways of how to recover from the situation. Do not waste too much time looking backwards (aka crying over spilt milk). Sure, you need to honestly understand why this has happened but this process shouldn’t take you more than a few days to do so. The mission now is to consider your options, leverage your strengths and move on. I find focusing on what I can do and actually doing it, far more useful than over-analysing or re-playing it in my mind. Put another way, you need to move yourself as quickly as possible through the five stages described above, so you can start to re-build your career as soon as possible. 

My third piece of advice is to re-think, if need be, your career trajectory. See this as an opportunity; a unique and golden opportunity. So, actively look into options you would never have considered in the past. In doing this, get out there and talk to people. Bounce ideas off people and most of all listen to what people are saying. In fact, I would strongly recommend that you consider changing the industry you work in. I’ve known people who worked in say banking for 10-odd years and moved into an industry that is completely different and they relished the challenge. 

My final piece of advice is to remain calm. Probably, you have financial obligations and need to be gainfully employed as soon as possible but you mustn’t panic. Clive Woodward’s favorite mantra is T-CUP, or ‘Thinking Correctly Under Pressure’. Just in case you’re wondering, Woodward was the English Rugby coach between 1997-2004 when England won the rugby world cup. I prefer ‘Think Clearly Under Pressure’ but you get the gist. Success is all about focus and you can only focus if you are calm and this is what T-CUP is all about. Granted, you are in a tricky, possibly scary situation, but you mustn’t panic. Calm people think clearly and that is exactly what you need to do when suffering a career setback. 

Ultimately, the whole experience will make you stronger. How you react to a career setback is more important, in the end, than what you actually end up doing with your career. If you really are good at what you do, and you remain calm, a good job opportunity will always find you.