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]