How To Bounce Back Stronger After You Blow It At Work

Three strategies to manage disappointment when it shows up. Because, for better or for worse, it will.

Eight years ago, when I was just starting my coaching practice, I was thrilled to win a large, lucrative contract with an international advertising agency. Several days a month, I would train and coach staff from all levels of the company on presentation skills, management skills, and professional presence--a dream assignment. Business chugged along successfully for three more years, until my biggest and best client merged with another agency, and that agency had preferred vendors of its own. And I wasn’t one of them.

I suddenly went from a professional high to deep disappointment. In addition to losing a significant chunk of my income, I had lost my plans for the future with this client, the “luxury” of postponing business development, and yes, some of my pride. And while my business has more than bounced back since then, the sting of this disappointment is still a part of my consciousness.

Now, in retrospect, that blow to my ego and my bottom line wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It was the kick in the butt I needed to develop a thicker skin, more personal and professional resilience, and yes, a more strategic business plan than “pray that nothing changes, ever.” Nonetheless, in the moment, I felt like my professional world was crashing down around me--and that tomorrow would only look and feel worse.

Sound familiar? Whether you blew your big presentation, failed to land the account that you had “in the bag,” or got passed over for a promotion, you know what disappointment feels like. It sucks--it sucks our energy, our confidence, and our dreams. Disappointment itself has many cousins in the family of negative emotions (anger, fear, sadness) but it also has a unique formula, as highlighted by author Chip Conley is his New York Times best-selling book, Emotional Equations: disappointment equals expectations, minus reality.

In other words, disappointment shows up in the gap between what we planned or hoped for and what we actually got. Sometimes that gap is a small fissure, easy to manage and simple to bridge. Other times, that gap is a giant chasm, and it can feel nearly impossible to pull ourselves out. What’s distinctively difficult about disappointment is that we grieve for the loss we feel today while we have to reconcile that our plans for a particular future that we had envisioned are lost as well.

We all deal with disappointments of all shapes and sizes in both our professional and personal lives on a regular basis: like the “sure thing” client (expectation) who went with another firm (reality); like the book proposal that we labored over (expectation) that got rejected by seven publishers (reality), and like the love of our life (expectation) who decided to love someone else (reality…AND reality TV, sadly). But we don’t just have our own disappointments to deal with: We have those of our colleagues, clients, bosses, family, and friends to consider. And the way in which we handle (or don’t handle) our disappointments can expand or limit the ways in which we support others in dealing with theirs.

Here are three strategies to manage disappointment when it shows up, because, for better or for worse, it will:

Recognize that there’s no correct way or time to manage disappointment. You may want to find the bright side (“So what? Losing this client means we have time to pursue other, more exciting clients!”) while your boss or colleague chooses to sit with the darkness or fear for a while (“Losing this client looks bad for us. We’ve got to figure out how to spin this before it becomes a PR disaster”). Don’t feel compelled to pull someone out of their misery prematurely or to ask someone to tone down their Pollyanna approach that rubs you the wrong way. As positive as I tend to be, I have a strong, negative reaction to people who need for me to see the bright side before I’m ready to. Just take some space and give some space, and don’t force someone to see your perspective immediately.

Assume that you have something to learn from this setback. When I lost my big client, I realized that I had minimized the importance of creating a long-term business pipeline in order to maximize short-term profits. Yes, I was busy making hay while the sun shined, but I hadn’t planted the seeds for the following harvest. Now, I am constantly doing business development while I do income-generating work because that disappointment taught me a terrible and terrific lesson that I don’t want to have to repeat. Your disappointment might highlight some shortcoming in your business strategy, an inflated setup in expectations, a mistake in your assumptions, an error in judgment, or even a character flaw in yourself. Don’t waste the pain. Force it to yield you valuable personal and professional rewards.

Don’t shrink your goals to avoid future disappointment. The anger, sadness, and embarrassment that can result from a setback can be a huge deterrent to putting yourself back out there, professionally and personally, to do what you were meant to do and be who you were meant to be. Do you set an undersized goal for your annual sales so that you are all but guaranteed to achieve it? When your superstar staff member quit to take a bigger job elsewhere, did you replace her with someone less fabulous as a (hopeful) retention tool? Are you hanging on to a book proposal that you won’t share with agents for fear of rejection? When we set a low bar for ourselves as a way to feel safe and even victorious when we achieve those small objectives, we deprive ourselves, our companies, and the world of our excellence and brilliance. Now that’s the real disappointment.

Author Marianne Williamson wrote, “Your playing small does not serve the world.” The big pain of disappointment can lead to even bigger outcomes and opportunities if we’re willing to be patient with the process, do the hard work to learn critical lessons, and, yes, put ourselves out there again. And again.

--Deborah Grayson Riegel is a communication and behavior expert and president of Elevated Training Inc. and MyJewishCoach.com. She is the author of Oy Vey! Isn't a Strategy: 25 Solutions for Personal and Professional Success.

[Image: Flickr user Kenny Louie]

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15 Comments

  • Csmith

    Deborah, Great article!  These words can help anyone dealing with disappointment - whether professionally or personally.

  • Greg Alder

    A few years ago, we were defrauded of several hundred thousand dollars by people who'd been close friends for 20 years. Our immediate reaction was a debilitating mix of depression, anger, confusion and desire for justice - if not complete retribution. It took close to 2 years to claw our way out of this quagmire. We began to focus on the things these 'friends' couldn't take - skills accumulated over many years, a support network and love. We set about building the business that we'd always been meant to build. I finally created the personal logo I'd wanted to design many, many years ago (the one I use here). We have met many generous, creative people and are well on our way to financial recovery. Emotional recovery isn't totally complete, but every day we feel more positive. Thank you, Deborah, for your article - and for reminding me of the importance of getting up again.

  • Debbie Christofferson

    Yes Greg, I have friends who built a business from scratch over the years, and they were defauded by supposedly "best friends" of years--who had Christmas dinner at their house.  It severely set them back financially and in the business, AND the emotional toll it took from someone you trust taking you to the cleaners--robbing you blind.  I can relate from watching their pain, and good for you pulling of it.

  • Sjsteiner9

    "It was the kick in the butt I needed to develop a thicker skin, more personal and professional resilience, and yes, a more strategic business plan than 'pray that nothing changes, ever.' Nonetheless, in the moment, I felt like my professional world was crashing down around me - and that tomorrow would only look and feel worse. Sound familiar? Whether you blew your big presentation, failed to land the account that you had 'in the bag,' or got passed over for a promotion, you know what disappointment feels like. It sucks - it sucks our energy, our confidence, and our dreams, it shows up in the gap between what we planned or hoped for and what we actually got." These are powerful words that I can't help but associate myself with, as I was let go of my front desk receptionist job of just a week, with absolutely no warning in sight. I thank Deborah Grayson Riegel, author of this very powerful article on Fast Company's website, in regards to how she handled her situation. According to Riegel, some helpful ways to reflect upon and add positivity to being let go, include, 'assuming that you have something to learn from this setback,' 'recgonizing that there is no correct way or time to manage the disappointment,' and 'not shrinking your goals in order to avoid future disappointment.' As philanthropist and author, Marianne Williamson states, "The big pain of disappointment can lead to even bigger outcomes and opportunities if we’re willing to be patient with the process, do the hard work to learn critical lessons, and, yes, put ourselves out there again. And again." After reading this article, I hope to move on and find a bigger passion to motivate myself, as several others before me have dealt with the same situation, over and over again. What I also find to be really helpful, is being able to relate to such an incredibly simple concept, as I continue to learn from my mistakes, as I eventually better myself for the future. It's the little lessons in life, that matter most.

  • Sjsteiner9

    "It was the kick in the butt I needed to develop a thicker skin, more personal and professional resilience, and yes, a more strategic business plan than 'pray that nothing changes, ever.' Nonetheless, in the moment, I felt like my professional world was crashing down around me - and that tomorrow would only look and feel worse. Sound familiar? Whether you blew your big presentation, failed to land the account that you had 'in the bag,' or got passed over for a promotion, you know what disappointment feels like. It sucks - it sucks our energy, our confidence, and our dreams, it shows up in the gap between what we planned or hoped for and what we actually got." These are powerful words that I can't help but associate myself with, as I was let go of my front desk receptionist job of just a week, with absolutely no warning in sight. I thank Deborah Grayson Riegel, author of this very powerful article on Fast Company's website, in regards to how she handled her situation. According to Riegel, some helpful ways to reflect upon and add positivity to being let go, include, 'assuming that you have something to learn from this setback,' 'recgonizing that there is no correct way or time to manage the disappointment,' and 'not shrinking your goals in order to avoid future disappointment.' As philanthropist Marianne Williamson states, "The big pain of disappointment can lead to even bigger outcomes and opportunities if we’re willing to be patient with the process, do the hard work to learn critical lessons, and, yes, put ourselves out there again. And again." After reading this article, I hope to move on and find a bigger passion to motivate myself, as several others before me have dealt with the same situation, over and over again. What I also find to be really helpful, is being able to relate to such an incredibly simple concept, as I continue to learn from my mistakes, as I eventually better myself for the future. It's the little lessons in life, that matter most.

  • OscarMarroquin

    It’s important to be your own "final authority" on your value and performance.  Once you give that up to someone else, then you've set yourself up for a rough ride.  Yes, others may have the final control on your "written evaluation" or giving you additional business etc.  However, this needs to be separated from the image and belief you have of yourself.  It is important to have a realistic view of yourself (there is a danger here if you happen to be narcissistic or exceptionally humble).  
     

    Circumstances sometimes have a way of influencing your destiny.  Many people lost their jobs due to the economy, this doesn't mean that they were not good at what they did and they wouldn't think that if they were the "final authority" on their own value and performance.  Other factors of influence may be the competition; weak competition may make you out to be better while exceptional competition may make you out to be weaker.  

     

    The key to maintaining sanity is to be your own final authority; you decide and then accept the consequences of your actions.

  • Lolaz

     Great post. While I went through coaching training, a key question we were continually asked was, "Who's driving the bus?" That is, we are in charge of our own lives, our decisions, how we see and value ourselves, our future paths, etc.It's easy to lose sight of that when we suffer losses (job losses, relationship break-ups)..What I can also say is that there is something to be learned from life's disappointments, and that I've learned to own my part in certain events (I can totally relate to what Deborah said about being short-sighted or putting my eggs in one basket in relation to an important client).

  • OscarMarroquin

    Taking ownership as you've noted, is an important part of pursuing success.  After all, if you look at the alternative, we would need to believe that our actions didn't influence the outcome.. Our actions will not always lead to success, however, taking ownership of the actions will enable us to make the necessary changes to move forward.  Good luck to you LOLAZ!

  • Lolaz

    Thanks, Oscar! Recognizing and owning our parts in different actions also helps us to learn and grow. Sometimes it takes time, just as bouncing back does.

    Good luck to you too!

  • Anne

    Another thing to remember is that if you never fail you'll never know how far you can go.

  • Todd

    Good article, and we can all use advice like this. However, the title should be How To Bounce Back Stronger after a Setback At Work. The article isn't about how to recover after you make a big mistake, which the title "After You Blow It" implies.

  • Lolaz

     I agree. Setbacks happen. It doesn't mean that you've blown something.

    And there is an upside to getting kicked in the butt. I know all too well from being downsized.

  • Derek

    I think that's part of the implication. Setbacks seem like big disasters when they first happen, spiraling you into self-doubt.