The Four Stages of a Career Setback

Over the course of your career, you’re bound to have a few startling setbacks. In my new book, A Leadership Kick in the Ass, I explain why setbacks and failures often provide valuable lessons that can actually enhance your career. Career butt-kicks share a four common stages, each of which is described below.

  1. Comfortable oblivion: Prior to the setback, you are blind to your own behavior. Life is going swimmingly and you are blithely unaware of the impending insult. Oftentimes you are full of confidence. You can quickly marshal the facts that support the value you’re adding to the organization you serve. You view yourself as competent, aware, and deserving.
  2. Startling sting: Ouch, that hurts! Setbacks assault our comfort and, thus, are painful events. As a rule, the more oblivious you are prior to the butt-kick, the more painful the kick will feel. Most commonly, setbacks provoke emotions of fear, anger, rejection, or depression. These emotions often result in defensiveness and self-righteousness— How dare they kick my butt this way!
  3. Change choice: After the sting starts to subside, you are left with a choice. Broadly defined, your choice comes down to accept or reject. This is the most critical stage in the setback process.
  4. Humility or arrogance: Depending on the decision you make in stage three, stage four will result in either deeper arrogance or genuine humility. If you double down on your conviction that your setback was an undeserved injustice, you’ll fortify your sense of righteousness. If you take the lumps the insult brings and make changes based on the information that it provides you, you’ll exit the setback event with a view of yourself that is more grounded, sober, and humble.

The next time you suffer a career setback, consider these tips:

Focus on the long game. A setback is just a momentary speed bump on your longer leadership career. The spike in pain will eventually yield to worthwhile lessons and changes. Focus on where you ultimately want your career to end up, not the detour it may have taken.

Remember, discomfort = growth. Comfort may be comfortable, but it’s also stagnant. You don’t grow in a zone of comfort. You grow, progress, and evolve in a zone of discomfort. The more uncomfortable the setback feels, the more growth can result.

Don’t be oblivious to yourself. How much might it be costing you to remain loyal to your ignorance? Self- exploration and discovery can be painful, but what is more painful in the long run is being a stunted human being, incapable of acknowledging, assimilating, or shoring up your shortcomings.

Be your own project. Lots of people lead projects better than they lead themselves. Think about what it takes to lead a great project. You start by identifying your desired outcomes, you put together a timeline and pinpoint critical milestones, you marshal the resources the project will need to be successful, and you identify metrics to track progress. Guess what? You can manage your career recovery the exact same way.

Stay present. Rather than try to avoid all that surfaces for you during and immediately after the humiliating event, fully immerse yourself in the experience. What feelings come up for you? What fears are at work? How might your feelings and fears serve you once the entire experience plays out? What are you learning and how can you put those lessons to good use?

Ultimately, if you let it, a humiliating career setback can be the entry point for a richer, fuller, and more complete understanding of yourself, as a professional and as a human being. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll be better able to use your strengths— and actively mitigate the shadows your strengths sometimes cause—so they better serve you and others. Abraham Maslow sums it well: “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”

Bill Treasurer is the Chief Encouragement Officer at Giant Leap Consulting. He is the author of the bestselling books Courage Goes To Work and Leaders Open Doors. His newest book, A Leadership Kick in the Ass, focuses on the crucial importance of leadership humility and is now available on Amazon. » Learn More.

About Bill Treasurer

Bill Treasurer is a bestselling author, leadership consultant, and creator of Q Cards. He is the founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company, and the author of the international bestseller, Courage Goes to Work. His workshops have been taught to thousands of executives in eleven countries on five continents. For more than two decades, Bill has designed and delivered programs for emerging and experienced leaders from such organizations as NASA, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lenovo, eBay, UBS Bank, Spanx, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to founding Giant Leap Consulting, Bill served as an executive in Accenture’s change management and human performance practice, eventually becoming the $35 billion company’s first full-time internal executive coach.

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