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Five questions to ask yourself when something bad happens at work

Bad things happen in everyone’s career: Projects fail. You apply for jobs that you don’t get. You sometimes even get fired. But it’s how you cope that counts.

Five questions to ask yourself when something bad happens at work
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We all hope for a career that runs from high point to high point. A great project leads to a promotion, which leads to an opportunity to take on a leadership role, which leads to recognition, money, impact, or whatever other measure of success feeds your dreams.

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But real careers don’t work like that.

Projects fail. You apply for jobs that you don’t get. You make mistakes, and sometimes even get fired. As any good biopic will show you, it is how you cope with these setbacks that really determines the arc of your career.

When something terrible happens, you are going to feel bad. Negative feelings are the way your motivational system communicates with the rest of your brain to tell you that things aren’t going well. You then interpret those negative feelings in order to experience emotions. If you understand these emotional reactions, it will give you a good clue for how to start moving forward.

Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. It is natural to be sad, upset, angry, or ashamed after something bad happens. You may need a few days before you’re really ready to move forward after the most negative events in your career. Don’t compound the problem by kicking yourself for feeling horrible.

While you are feeling bad, though, take stock of what you’re actually feeling. It helps you to figure out what is going on.

Are you angry?

Anger generally reflects that someone or something has blocked you from achieving an important goal, and that you have no control over the situation. So, the two key points here are that you haven’t achieved what you wanted to achieve and the decision was completely out of your hands.

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When you are angry, the natural reaction is to want to react against the obstacle. For example, if you were hoping to get a promotion and your boss selects someone else for the job rather than you, it is common to want to lash out at your boss.

Should you actually fight back against your obstacle?

That depends a lot on what happened. When someone has done something truly unethical in the workplace, you should at least consider whether you should fight it. For example, sexual harassment must be eliminated, and if you are the victim of harassment in the workplace, find allies, and fight against it using the resources your company provides.

However, there are also many situations in which the people who blocked your path simply have different priorities from you. A client may simply prefer another firm to yours. Your boss may have passed you over for a promotion, because another person also had qualifications.

In those situations, fighting back demonstrates that you don’t understand the situation that well. Instead, after a few days of grieving, it is time to accept that intelligent people can disagree. Treat the people who were involved in the bad situation with respect. Who knows, they may come back to you in the future with an opportunity that is better than the one you lost out on in the first place.

And whatever you do, don’t respond directly to someone in anger without giving yourself 24 hours to cool off. Emails composed with righteous indignation may feel perfect in the moment, but you’ll generally be happier if you don’t send them. And, you rarely change anyone’s mind about anything when you confront them in a highly emotional state.

Are you disappointed?

There are times when you really want something—a promotion, an opportunity, a raise. And you don’t get it. The more you want it, the worse it hurts when you don’t get it. The emotion you experience in this situation is sadness or disappointment.

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These emotions reflect that there was some very positive outcome that you were hoping for and it didn’t work out. Lurking behind disappointment is some positive news. You were deeply invested in bringing about a positive outcome. It didn’t happen, but it was close enough to happening that you could actually envision it.

Don’t let disappointment remove your focus on potential contributions you can make in the workplace. A setback can sometimes shake your confidence. Take heart in knowing that you were close enough to a great outcome that you could be that invested in it. Use that energy to focus on other positive changes you can make.

Are you stressed?

If you’re really stressed after you get bad news, then that reflects that there is some looming catastrophe out there that you feel you might not be able to avoid.

The first thing you need to do is to figure out whether that is true. That is, there might really be something significant that you need to deal with. Perhaps you have concerns about your prospects of staying employed. If there is something that needs to be dealt with, then focus on actions you can take to minimize the potential damage of these negatives.

However, you might also find that the stress comes from rumination—a cycle of negative thoughts that can sustain stress and anxiety. There may not be a looming crisis, but the setback has made it hard to stop thinking about your fears. If so, consider talking with a therapist or counselor. Write about the things that bother you, because expressive writing like this can also help to reduce stress. Finally, try some mindfulness exercises, which are also quite effective for stress.

Are you ashamed?

Bad news at work may also lead to feelings of shame—an emotion in which you feel bad because of your concerns about how your actions or situation make you look in the eyes of others. You might feel like the bad thing that happened to you in the workplace will be seen as your fault in ways that reduce your status in the eyes of others.

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Shame rarely leads to productive behavior. Instead, you tend to avoid social interactions when you think that other people are ashamed of you. As a result, you decrease your commitment to your work and your colleagues.

In fact, your colleagues are generally more compassionate toward you than you are likely to be toward yourself. Indeed, imagine how you would treat a colleague in the same position as you are in. You should treat yourself at least as well as you would treat a colleague.

Not only that, shame can actually make a bad situation worse. If you start putting in less effort at work and you reduce your interactions with others, your reputation at work will eventually start to suffer. Your reaction to the initial setback will actually become the bigger problem.

Instead, you need to acknowledge the bad things that happened and forge ahead. Make yourself an example of how to be resilient in the face of bad outcomes—even if you don’t feel like you can possibly face another day at work. When you’re experiencing shame, the advice to fake it ’til you make it often works well.

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