Bounce Back: How to Overcome Professional Setbacks

iStock_000002493020XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

Onward and upward is a familiar mantra to those who have encountered professional setbacks. And let’s face it—most everyone at some point must deal with unwanted, and in many cases, unexpected, job-related stumbling blocks along their career path.

Whether due to a layoff, management shakeup, office politics, or a bad boss, career setbacks have the potential to be disorienting at best, and debilitating at worst. By the nature of such disappointments, career blows can affect our sense of professionalism, livelihood, and self-esteem.

Though the initial tendency may be to avoid dealing head-on with major setbacks because of complexity and emotion, taking the time to learn from these experiences can help turn what looks like an end of the road into just a bend. “When dealing with a setback, I really don’t like to figure out what I did wrong, but eventually you have to,” says Becky Walzak, president and CEO of Walzak Consulting. “I have learned that the distance of time is the best microscope for assessing why things happened the way they did.”

Despite the inherent challenges in being faced with career impediments, there are ways you can get back on track more quickly after you’ve been derailed. The Glass Hammer spoke candidly with several women who have suffered significant setbacks in their professional lives yet found ways to successfully overcome their obstacles. The following strategies summarize the group’s best advice on how to move onward and upward from negative job experiences.

Line Up Advocates

Women’s leadership coach Vicki Donlan, author of Her Turn: Why It’s Time for Women to Lead in America, says lining up advocates can play a key role in helping to circumvent setbacks. “Going it alone never works,” says Donlan. One of Donlan’s clients spent two years presumably being groomed for a director position, only to have her company go outside the firm for the hire. Donlan coached her client to meet directly with the partner she had the closest relationship with, and express her dissatisfaction with the process. By taking this initiative, she learned that the partner actually had been against the outcome. She then took the opportunity to work closely with her new advocate at the top, and within 9 months had both a raise and the job that she wanted.

Walzak agrees that it is critical to know who you are working with, and separate supporters from potential derailers. “While the issues may appear different for someone working in a large company, a small company, or your own company, people tend to be the same,” says Walzak. “There will be those who are scared by your abilities and may try to prevent you from succeeding. There will be those who celebrate what you can do and help you succeed. Either way you should get to know them well.”

Find Outside Support

While having advocates inside the company can be invaluable, outside supporters can fill a different role in helping to move you through career valleys. Lauren Still, founder of Careerevolution Group, says seeking a skilled outside perspective from a non-colleague can help you step back, see the bigger picture, and prioritize your actions. “You may need to vent, and it is better to do so outside of work, so you can maintain a professional image in the office,” says Still. “A support partner can assist you to see the forest not the trees, recognize what is a chronic issue and what is temporary, and brainstorm solutions.”

During Walzak’s career setbacks—which included being assured she would be at the top of the list for a promotion that she didn’t receive, and starting a company that failed—she found external friends and family to be her strongest supporters rather than colleagues. “You really need some cheerleaders in your corner to keep your spirits up, and I have generally found these outside of my business,” says Walzak. “Within the business, most people are either expecting you to fail or are more interested in what you could do for them if you were successful.”

Keep Faith in Yourself

In the face of career obstacles, one of the biggest enemies we must fight is ourselves. Career setbacks can shake us to our core, making us doubt ourselves and our abilities, while leaving our self-esteem in shambles. To overcome this, women must find ways to keep believing in themselves during professional low points. “Generally, I have found that the hardest part of a setback is trying to keep faith in yourself,” says Walzak. Nikki Sells, vice president of client services at IFX International, Inc., recommends that women try to override this tendency toward self-doubt when in the middle of a setback, and maintain absolute confidence in their instincts. “We become out own worst enemy when we second-guess ourselves,” she says.

Still has noticed these tendencies as well with her clients. She notes that one result of losing confidence is experiencing a sense of anxiety and overwhelm. These feelings if not dealt with can lead to a snowball effect of unproductive behaviors that intensify job problems, such as decreased effectiveness, productivity, and poor performance reviews, which then spiral into loss of motivation and personal pride. “When someone starts to lack control over their situation at work, I see behaviors that are not typical of the usual professional person,” says Still. “This may emerge as snapping at people, losing your cool, ignoring issues because you feel you don’t have the capacity to solve them, and inability to support others.”

Still notes that when you are stressed and overwhelmed, it is hard to be creative and logical, yet emphasizes that those are exactly the skills you need to get through the crisis. She recommends that women in this situation take a step back and redefine their values, strengths, and personal brand. This could involve focusing on your innate talents and positive characteristics, and then mapping out where you want to go in your career and how to get there.

Feminist scholar Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar describes her own career setbacks as a “rollercoaster,” having changed careers three times in the last six years. “Taking the long view and believing in yourself are not just feel-good taglines,” she says. “If you don’t know your own value, how will anyone else?” Her strategy to surf the waves has been to try to stay vital so that her skills are more transferable to other organizations. “From the minute I knew I was unhappy, I began developing skills and other knowledge that I was interested in but that would also be valuable to a prospective employer,” says Rajakumar. “You have to be out there constantly updating yourself, or you’re dead in the water.”

It’s also important to give yourself the time to come to terms with the setback, and see what lessons it may hold. When you’re in the middle of a negative experience, it’s hard to have accurate judgment, so you shouldn’t rush yourself to figure it all out. “Sometimes setbacks occur because of what you did or didn’t do, and sometimes they happen because of what someone else did or didn’t do,” says Walzak. “The best course of action is to identify how you can change it the next time. So don’t react right way. Take some time and figure it out. Then make plans.”

Finally, take the long view on any perceived setbacks along your career path—don’t assume a setback won’t help you in the long run. “See the advantage in a setback in your career,” says Donlan. “Most often this is when the best opportunities present themselves.”