Back on Track

Overcoming a Major Setback in Your Career

Back on Track - Overcoming a Major Setback in Your Career

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Learn how to overcome hurdles successfully.

We all have bad days at work. But some days are much worse than others! If you've received a layoff notice, learned that you've been passed over for a promotion, or been formally reprimanded for your performance, these things go beyond having a rough day at the office. They can be major career setbacks.

When something like this happens to you, it can seem like the end of the world. Will you lose your job? Will you be able to find a new job? Will you ever get the opportunity and recognition you desire?

With worst-case scenarios running through your head, it may be hard to pull yourself together and start planning your next move. But that's exactly what you have to do. You must dig deep, and find the strength to move on.

If you worry and focus on the negatives, you'll miss out on the positives. And developing a positive outlook can help you rebound quickly. In fact, with the right attitude and set of skills, you might emerge from a career setback with a much stronger belief in yourself – and in what you can accomplish.

Getting Past the Impasse

When you encounter a career setback, you have a choice: accept the situation and make positive plans to move forward. Or resist the situation and try to fight the change. Either way, whether you like it or not, things have changed.

Isn't it better to have a say in those changes? After all, most of us will hit what appears to be a brick wall in our lives at some point. This is often what initiates change in the first place. It's best to decide to view the change as a challenge and a growth experience. If you don't, you risk internalizing the situation, thinking that you've done something wrong, or fearing that you're inadequate in some way.


Want to learn more about getting beyond impasses in your life and "unsticking" your career? Read this interview with Tim Butler, author of "Getting Unstuck," for practical information and helpful hints.

Try to remember that no matter how disappointed, upset, angry, or discouraged you feel right now, it will pass. You're facing a new and different reality. To get through this setback, you need to adjust your perspective to the changes you're experiencing.

These basic guidelines can help you change your outlook and improve your attitude.

Step 1: Acknowledge Your Feelings

Take some time to accept your new reality, and give yourself permission to feel bad. It's important to recognize and admit to your emotions: keeping them inside may only make them seem larger and more overwhelming than they really are.

  • Take some time to explore unresolved issues that often surface in times of stress and setback. Do you have lingering self-doubts? What does your "inner critic" say to you that makes you feel unworthy? Evaluate thinking patterns that may keep you trapped in a negative cycle.
  • Seek support and assurance from others. It's really important to have at least one person you can talk to about what's happening. You might need to vent your frustrations, or you might need a sympathetic audience. Often the perspectives of others help you see the situation more clearly.

Step 2: Expand Your View of Success

Encountering a career setback does not mean that you've failed or that you're unsuccessful or unworthy. The reality you're facing is not a reflection of your value as a person or as a team member.

  • Learn from this experience. Don't focus exclusively on the negatives. Rather than view your setback as a problem to surmount, focus on the future opportunities that will open up for you.
  • Put the setback into the right perspective. This is only one incident in your career. Don't make it into a catastrophic event that will mark you forever.
  • Avoid failure terminology. Say instead, "I tried, and it didn't work out this time." This will help keep your viewpoint positive.
  • Practice rational and positive thinking, and make sure that your perspective is well aligned with the reality of the situation.

Step 3: Develop New Skills

Use this as an opportunity. Do you need to upgrade your skills to get a promotion or new job? Do you need to develop new skills to take your career in a new direction? This is the perfect time to start.

  • Discover your passion. What is it that really excites and inspires you?
  • Determine what your core skills are, and build your career goals around them. These don't necessarily have to be technical skills. Find out which competencies have been most instrumental in your success so far.

Step 4: Build Your Resiliency

You need to be mentally tough and able to maintain your professionalism – even when things aren't going so well. Resilience is essential. It allows people who have it to be much more successful than they would otherwise be. A resilient person will probably bounce back from a hardship much more quickly and easily than someone who is more rigid and "thin-skinned."

Here are some key characteristics of resiliency that you can develop in yourself:

  • High self-efficacy – believe in your ability to be successful. Don't simply want, hope, or try to be successful. Expect success, and put yourself in a position to capitalize on the opportunities you've been given.
  • Positive outlook – be optimistic about your future, and don't allow present circumstances to cloud your vision of yourself.
  • Introspection – ask yourself what's working and what isn't. Understand that success requires flexibility, and constantly look for ways to do things better and improve yourself.
  • Focus on controllable things – if you can't change it or control it, then your energy is wasted when you dwell on it. When you feel in control and focus on things that you can influence, you'll also reduce much of the stress and pressure that you're feeling. Keep making decisions and solving problems, even when you doubt yourself and feel less than confident.


To learn more about developing resilience , listen to our interview with Cal Crow. Find out what makes a person resilient, and pick up great tips on how to develop your own resilience and self-efficacy.

Step 5: Determine What Went Wrong

Your own role in the setback will vary from situation to situation. A company-wide layoff is probably beyond your control, whereas being terminated or reprimanded for performance issues is something for which you can take more responsibility. Regardless, it's important that you make a thorough assessment of the situation to maximize your learning and correct any wrongs.

  • Identify the aspects of the setback that were and were not in your control. Was (or is) the job a good fit for your skills? Do you have what it takes to be successful in the position – or do you need more training, experience, or other development? Did the organization's leaders simply make a staffing decision based on economics?
  • Determine what you need to do to make sure that you learn from your mistakes and never repeat them. What would you do differently next time? What behaviors or decisions contributed to the setback you're experiencing?
  • Where possible, correct your mistakes and reduce the damage as much as you can. This is especially important if your actions had consequences for others on your team.
  • Avoid blaming others, because this only keeps you focused on the negative aspects of the situation. It's not a constructive use of your energy.

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Step 6: Take Action

When you know what factors contributed to the setback, develop an action plan that will help you get your career back on track.

  • Create a strategy for your career. You have a new perspective and a new set of circumstances. What you used to believe, and the direction in which you were heading, may no longer apply. Assess all of your options, and determine which options provide the greatest potential. Brainstorm ideas, and talk to your network to develop a broad range of ideas and opportunities.
  • Break down your strategy into a detailed career plan. Identify manageable pieces, and develop goals for yourself.
  • Using what you've learned about yourself and what you need to improve, determine what you now need to accomplish – and by when. The more specific your goals, the more likely you'll be to follow them through to completion.
  • As you accomplish your smaller goals, your self-confidence will increase, and you'll be motivated to keep moving forward and believing in yourself.

Step 7: Rebound

Look to the future. Maintain your positive outlook, and don't look back. Every experience provides value. Use everything you've learned about yourself to build a new and better reality. And remember that what happened didn't kill you, and did make you stronger.

Key Points

When you suffer a setback in your career, you need to realize that it's not the end of the world. You're not the only person who's lost a job or made a big mistake. You are, however, the only one who has the ability to turn the situation around and make it a positive event in your life.

When you adopt the right attitude and realize that there are many other opportunities available, you can recover from almost any setback. In fact, if you take the time to learn about yourself and assess what went wrong, you'll emerge in a better position to take advantage of future career opportunities. A setback only sets you back if you allow it to do so.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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