Overcome On-the-Job Failure

On this blog, we talk a lot about how to reach your full potential as a leader.  One of the most important things you can do along these lines is to cope productively and bounce back from failure. In the event that you’ve recently been turned down for a promotion, had your budget cut, or had a project canceled, here are some suggestions for getting through a difficult period in your career.

Accept what has happened

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross popularized the five discrete stages in which people cope with grief and tragedy – and you guessed it, denial was #1.  However, people overcome grief by moving on from this attitude, eventually reaching the last and most healthy stage of acceptance.

Change your perspective

Could it be that failure isn’t as bad as it sounds?  In his book The Power of Failure, Charles Manz says that while sometimes failure is tied to a lack of competence to perform in the face of a specific challenge, it is often the means for life’s greatest breakthroughs and successes.

“Optimistic thinking has sometimes gotten a bad rap, but research has found that we can live happier, healthier, and more successful lives if we can learn to discover the opportunities in problems,” advises Manz.

He also advocates redefining what constitutes failure and what constitutes success.  Viewing failure, for instance, as a falling short because of ineptness, deficiency, or negligence, and as a bad thing that should be avoided, mourned, or punished, is not particularly helpful.  Instead, why not look at it as a short-term, unexpected result that provides an opening for creative change and innovation?

Let the emotions in

Before you rush into the next thing, allow yourself to feel the common emotions of disappointment, rejection, worry, and bitterness.  Recognize, though, that you won’t always feel this badly.  The only thing that’s certain about human emotions is that they change constantly, and even when you’ve experienced hardship, your mood is likely to pick up on its own with a little time.

Consider whether the current failure is really the issue

People who suffer from clinical depression or anxiety often have a negative view of their careers regardless of the circumstances.  For instance, you might feel like a delinquent at your job even in the face of a glowing performance review.  Before you act too hastily, assess whether your current unhappiness extends to all areas of your life – for example, your relationships with family and friends, your hobbies, and your religion.  If so, you might be better served by the counsel of a trained therapist.

Think short-term and objectively

By keeping in mind that the situation is temporary, you’ll be strong enough to take the necessary steps to overcome the misfortune.  In the meantime, try to analyze the scenario from an objective point of view.  A setback may signal that this isn’t the right path for you to be on, and may indicate that it’s time for a drastic change.  On the other hand, a career obstacle may mean that you simply need to dust yourself off and try again. No matter what the facts say, though, look for ways to take personal accountability for your situation.  See what you can learn: maybe there were actions you took or behaviors you exhibited that you can avoid in your next endeavor.

Trust in family and friends


When you’re feeling beaten down, it always helps to know you are not alone and that you are justified in feeling the way you do.  Instead of withdrawing from the people you care about, make an effort to connect with them, lean on them for support, and count on them for a good laugh or some much-needed time off the couch.  The people who know you best can help you take a step back from an emotionally-charged situation and view it in a more constructive light.  Your network of friends and family is most critical, but you can receive comfort and insight from spiritual support systems and prayer as well.

Consider what you’ll do next

Maybe now is the time to assess if the work you’ve been involved in truly motivates you, or if there is something out there that would be a better fit.  If you need help with this process, perhaps seek out a respected career coach or check out a career reinvention book like New Job, New You.

Launch a new initiative


Preparing for a new project in which you’re afforded a fresh perspective can provide you with a sorely needed dose of enthusiasm.  Even if you’re tempted to sit numbly in front of your computer all day, recognize that laziness will actually make you feel worse.  Work hard at your job, and reach out to colleagues who are going through a similar experience for encouragement and support.

Recognize that healing takes time

It is human nature to want to skip the learning stages associated with overcoming a failure, and the more hardship you’ve experienced, the more eager you are to turn things around sooner rather than later.  Charles Manz tells the story of his efforts to learn Tai Chi.  In anticipation of the health benefits he would receive, Manz was eager to master his technique right away.  Despite his instructor’s advice that he take it slow and start by learning one or two poses at a time, he tried to master a whole form in a month instead of the year it typically requires.  Because he hadn’t been patient with the process, Manz was eventually forced to work doubly hard to re-learn his poses in a technically correct manner.

These steps are not always easy, but I’ve personally found that if I give them their due, I am much better equipped to move on from difficult career situations with a clear head and heart!

Alexandra Levit

Alexandra Levit’s goal is to help people find meaningful jobs - quickly and simply - and to succeed beyond measure once they get there. Follow her @alevit.

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