7 Ways to Rebound from Career Setbacks


Death, Divorce, Company mergers and acquisitions, immigration to a new country – these are some things that can cause career setbacks. Whatever the reason, any career setback can be frightening – especially for high achievers. What is also true is that it has affected most people at some point in their careers due to either personal reasons or a company realignment of some sort. Most professionals respond to a career setback in the same way as others actually undergoing classic grief. Recent high-profile company layoffs in Canada like Tim Hortons, due to mergers & acquisitions are a case in point of employees having to start over again.

The classic stages of loss as defined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross starts with shock and denial about the events and move on to anger at the company or the boss, bargaining over their fate, and then a protracted period of ‘why is this happening?” and questions abound whether or not they can ever regain the respect of their peers and team. Many people never make it to the “acceptance” stage.

Even a dramatic career failure can become a springboard to success if you respond in the right way. To execute a career turnaround, you need to focus on a few key tasks: Determine why you lost, identify new paths, and seize the right opportunity when it’s within your reach.

Figure out why you lost out and Accept it

There are many reasons for career setbacks. Some personal – others professional. Personal issues like Divorce, Death are extremely difficult issues to navigate much less in a professional setting. These personal issues also can lead to career setbacks. Other professional issues like a company merger or acquisition – a situation in which employees can be left feeling like they’ve lost total control. Both situations can have a tremendous impact on high achievers.

Social psychologists have found in decades’ worth of studies, 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. People focus on situational factors or company politics instead of examining their own role in the problem.

Some ask others for candid feedback, but most turn to sympathetic friends, family members, and colleagues who reinforce their self-image (“You deserved that job”) and feed their sense of injustice (“You have every right to be angry”). This prevents them from considering their own culpability and breaking free of the destructive behaviour that derailed them in the first place.

Those who rebound from career losses take a decidedly proactive approach to their careers. Instead of getting stuck in grief or blame, actively explore how they contributed to what went wrong, evaluate whether they sized up the situation correctly and reacted appropriately, and consider what they would do differently if given the chance. They also gather feedback from a wide variety of people (including superiors, peers, and subordinates), making it clear that they want honest feedback, not consolation.

Use this as an opportunity for Self-Reassessment

New opportunities don’t usually present themselves right away, of course, and it can be hard to spot them through the fog of anger and disappointment in the early days after a setback. Studies by change management expert William Bridges highlight the tension people feel when they’re torn between hanging onto their current identities and expectations and letting go. Many people describe feeling like they entered a “twilight zone”: The status quo has been fatally disrupted, but it’s not clear yet what success will look like in the future.

That’s why it’s useful to take time to test out some ideas for what to do next. One option is to speak with a career counselor or engage in therapy, both to clarify goals and to work on personal development. Another is to take a temporary leave from your job to go back to school or test-drive a career interest at a start-up or a nonprofit. Pausing a bit can allow you to find new meaning in your setback. Others rebound by realising they want to start their own businesses.

Identify New Paths

Reframing losses as opportunities involves hard thinking about who you are and what you want. Research shows that escapism is a common reaction to career derailment—people may take trips to get away from their troubles, immerse themselves in busywork, drink or eat excessively, or avoid discussing their thoughts and plans with family and friends. While these behaviors can give you mental space to sort things out, they rarely lead to a productive transition. It’s more effective to engage in a focused exploration of all the options available.

Do your research

That’s why it’s useful to take time to test out some ideas for what to do next. Whether its switching careers or starting a new business it will require lots of research and talking to those already in the field. Research is critically important to not only finding the right fit career-wise but also to see if that new business idea will really take off. Others may realise that its time to start pursuing their own passions – and then turn that into a new career. Either way it takes research to figure out next-steps.

Network and Connect with those in your field

Its important to reach out to friends and business associates in order to gain perspective and advice in thinking through goals. When you have an opportunity to connect with experts in the field make sure to  reflect on each conversation, make notes, and eventually develop a career map. Jot down specific goals in your career map. Examples of goals that you can use in a career map may include (this also depends on your field of work) “bringing new products to market”, “interact more directly with clients”, “work for a company with a unique value proposition”, “have colleagues I like that can be trusted”. After creating the career map tailor your job search to achieve those goals.

Find a mentor and a sponsor

After you’ve created the career map it is important to reach out to those who can help you achieve the goals in your map. Find the right mentors is also very important. It may not have to be a long-term commitment. It may be getting answers to specific questions related to your career map. You may find that talking to several people is necessary because of the diversity of career goals you may have. A sponsor is someone that can vouch for you for a promotion or even getting that new job. When you are rebounding from a career setback this is also very important. That sponsor can help you forge a new career especially if the person was a previous boss who has seen you at your best!

Seize the Right Opportunity

Identify possible next steps. it’s time to pick one. Admittedly, this can be a little frightening, especially if you’re venturing into unknown career territory. Reimagining your professional identity is one thing; bringing it to life is another. Remember, though, that you haven’t left your skills and experience behind with your last job, and you’ll also bring with you the lessons learned from the setback. You may also have productively revised your definition of success.

Research shows that needs and priorities can change dramatically over time—as children are born or grow up and move out, after a divorce or a parent’s death, when early dreams fade in midlife and new ones emerge, and when perspectives and skills become outdated and new growth challenges beckon. So choosing the right opportunity has a lot to do with the moment when you happen to be looking. Some people ultimately 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 the team or organization.  Whatever the case, the approach laid out here can help transform the setback into excitement about new possibilities.

What was your career setback? How did you bounce back?

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