Making Setbacks Work for You

How can you tap into the power of a setback and make it work for you? I have nine recommendations.

1. If you’re shocked by the setback, ask yourself why.

In “Ambition: How We Manage Success and Failure Throughout Our Lives,” Gilbert Brim observes that “sometimes we don’t know we are losing until the very end.” And that’s not entirely our fault. In a nation of optimists, there’s reluctance to deliver bad news. It’s the courageous supervisor—and the equally courageous colleague—who will even hint that there are major problems.

Oh, sure, there are signals. Your work comes back from the new powers-that-be with plenty of red pencil, and something in your gut says the new regime and you aren’t on the same wavelength. But it’s not unusual for the brass not to spell out that there’s a problem. When it comes to bad news, your colleagues are usually equally evasive. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, someone in command says, “This just isn’t working out.”

You can avoid the shock and perhaps even prevent the setback from happening if you develop the ability and the willingness to read the subtext beneath the surface. It’s best to consider everything in the workplace as symbolic. If you’re not invited to a meeting, ask yourself what that means. If you don’t receive a raise, ask what that could represent. If the bosses are consistently impatient with you and act as if you really get under their skin, ask yourself or a trusted colleague what might be going on.

If this looming setback can’t be prevented, don’t waste time in denial. Your first few phone calls should be to those who’ve gone through similar ordeals. Those kinds of conversations bring home to you that you’re not unique and that, yes, people do survive your particular kind of setback. Even before the setback occurs, start thinking about how to deal with it from a position of strength. Certainly you might want to consult a lawyer. But think seriously about all your options.

2. Be gentle with yourself.

Setbacks can happen to anyone. Winston Churchill lost elections. So did Abraham Lincoln. Walt Disney’s first animation studio went bankrupt. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, was fired from Salomon Brothers. Anna Wintour, before becoming editor of Vogue, was fired from Harper’s Bazaar. And do you remember Facebook’s disastrous IPO? Anyone can take a hit. So give yourself a break.

3. Don’t play the blame game.

Were you treated unfairly? Perhaps so. It happens. Unfortunately, no matter how angry you may be, you gain nothing by blaming others. Failure can be a springboard to success, but only if you are willing to put blame aside and consider whether you may have inadvertently contributed to the setback. That’s the only way you can hope to avoid similar crashes in the future. But even there, it’s self-destructive and inaccurate to blame yourself entirely for forces may be at work that has nothing to do with you. The best approach might be to take the advice of the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. As he said in “The Emperor’s Handbook,” “If you fail, blame only yourself, or better yet, don’t blame anyone.” It was true in the second century, and it’s true now. Analyze; don’t blame.

4. Get feedback. 

Everyone feels vulnerable after a setback, so it isn’t easy to ask for feedback, even from friends and allies. But this could be the single most enlightening step you take. At the very least, doing this will let you know what people might be saying about you. And because you’re in a crisis, you’ll find that people will tend to be straight with you.

After she was selected for the first wave of layoffs at a major food company, a member of the public relations department did a smart thing. She went to one of her colleagues and asked why she had been let go. She knew there was a message there but just didn’t know exactly what it was. The colleague was candid and told her she was a poor fit for corporate life. “But I have never had trouble with senior management,” she said. “And aren’t they the ones who count?”

The colleague then gave her an education on how images are formed in an organization, pointing out that the reason she had gotten by with senior executives was probably because their interaction with her was so limited. “You couldn’t sustain being a good corporate citizen” was the way the colleague summed up her situation. Believe it or not, this was the first inkling she had that perhaps she didn’t belong in this type of organization. And by ultimately leading her to a more hospitable work setting, this setback changed her life.

5. Be open to alternatives, even if they’re not directly related to your current career path.

A media representative who was laid off decided to try out her long-term dream of selling for a living. She realized that a lot of the skills she used in pitching stories to the media could be used in sales. She turned out to be more successful in sales than she had been in media relations. Many layoffs occur because you are in a declining industry or a shrinking profession. Once you’re out of it, the playing field seems more level, and you begin to do well.

6. Keep it simple.

Much of the advice you get during this crisis might seem simplistic. And it is. On the other hand, your problem might seem very complex to you. But it probably isn’t. One man was put on probation at his job and assumed it was because he had deep-seated issues with authority. A colleague let him in on a little secret: “You can’t stand the boss, and it shows.” The solution to the problem was not for the man to figure out why he hated the boss; it was simply for the man not to be so open in showing his feelings. If you think the interpretations people give you for why you suffered a setback are simplistic, keep listening. They’re probably just cutting through all the psychobabble and giving you the truth.

7. Move toward the future.

The last place where you want to be stuck is in your current problem. That’s why so many people get active after a setback. They want to see movement. They want change. They go on diets, learn new computer skills, travel to San Francisco to see if they would like to relocate there, develop a whole new network and start new exercise regimes. Activities like these allow their frame of reference to shift to post-setback.

8. Realize you’re not the first person to be scared.

You have plenty of company. Also, realize that fear is usually a friend; it warns us to be careful. Fear becomes the enemy only when we allow it to control us. If you’re becoming overly scared, call up someone who has been in your shoes and is now doing just fine.

9. Refrain from becoming preoccupied with setbacks.

Sure, you’ll learn a lot about failure when you’re past it. But your goal is to go through it and not be fixated on failure. It’s just one part of your professional experience. With luck, a small part.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher Citadel Press, from The Critical First Years of Your Professional Life by Robert L. Dilenschneider. Copyright © 2014.