A quick back-of-an-envelope calculation: during the course of a 45-year career, the typical employee will spend around 90,000 hours at work. That’s around a third of the time that they are awake, and if you really want to break it down, it all adds up to around five-and-a-half million minutes of sitting down at a desk in pursuit of a pay packet.
Your dream, as you started out on your career path, was that each of these minutes would be infused with interesting and life-enriching moments – professional challenges to stimulate the mind; personal encounters to help you forge life-long friendships; development opportunities to inch you ever nearer to your personal career nirvana.
No one ever told you about the horrible boss who would hold you back. Or the bizarre whispering campaign that suddenly started up about you when you got back from holiday. Or the awkward office cliques or the endless rounds of redundancies or the unshakable feeling in the pit of your stomach that you are actually going nowhere.
Unfortunately, the chances of work enveloping you like a dark shadow and steadily sucking out your soul are high: a Gallup poll last year found that 85 per cent of workers hate their jobs. A few years earlier, Forbes magazine found that work was far more likely to offer frustration than fulfilment to employees.
While many people are dissatisfied with their professional lot because they find their work rather mundane, other times it is something else entirely – something that might loosely be described as a “professional setback”. We asked experts for help with four of the most brutal ones.
You’ve been passed over for promotion
‘When this happens, it can create a feeling akin to character assassination,’ says George Brown, head of Employability and Careers at the London School of Business and Finance (www.lsbf.org.uk). ‘An individual may begin to feel devalued and unworthy, which in turn sets off a cycle of self-doubt and de-motivation. This is the sting, and the only remedies are perseverance and self-analysis.’
Brown says that there are multiple reasons that people who were convinced they were going to rise up through the ranks suddenly find the rug pulled from beneath their feet: You may lack the necessary skills and experience; it may be that management thinks you wouldn’t be well suited to working within a particular team. ‘Sometimes an insecure manager may feel threatened by a worker’s performance and worry they could be out-shone or lose their own position,’ adds Brown. ‘It is important not to hang onto any negatives and instead, look to improve yourself as best you can. Continue in this vein and your day will come.’
In order to be able to move on – and stop feeling sorry for yourself – Brown says it is a good idea to have a conversation with the hiring manager. ‘You need to gather constructive feedback and explore potential new work opportunities within the team or organisation which are suitable for you,’ he says. ‘This approach also allows the hiring manager to state their case. However, if you are constantly passed over for promotion and you experience dismissive behaviour when seeking feedback, the matter can be escalated to the next level.’
Ultimately, Brown says that not being given the leg-up you were expecting can be a chance to explore how you need to better yourself professionally. ‘Look at failure as a direction on the road to your final destination – success!’ he says.
‘Try and develop a growth mindset. This will better serve you in seeing all temporary failures as opportunities to learn new strengths and for personal growth.’
Don’t do this: Scream ‘I quit!’ in anger. There will likely have been multiple options for hiring managers when it came to candidates, and just because your face didn’t fit this time, it certainly need not mean that you have reached your ceiling in this particular workplace. ‘It might just be that it wasn’t the right job at the right time,’ says Brown.
You are being sidelined by your colleagues
Arguably one of the most poisonous and uncomfortable setbacks that can happen at work, being left out by the rest of the team can lead to insecurity, self-doubt, worry and worse. If it happens to you, high performance and productivity consultant Abigail Ireland (www.abigailireland.com) says it is almost impossible not to feel rejected and unpopular. ‘It can really knock your self-esteem and make you believe you’re not good enough,’ she says.
So how do you deal with it?
‘This is a great opportunity to self-reflect,’ says Ireland. ‘Be unbiased and step into your colleagues’ shoes. Why might they be acting in this way? Is something else going on in their work/lives that may be contributing? Do they feel threatened?’ Perhaps, she asks, you are being over sensitive? Consider if this is only happening to you. Maybe you’ll spot a legitimate reason why you are being left out.
It could be that your colleagues are not even aware of their behaviour – it could equally be that they are, and that deep down, you don’t really care, which in turn may lead you to question if your workplace is somewhere you really want to be. If it is, and you want to get to the root of this issue, Ireland suggests speaking up – but sticking to the facts.
‘Firstly, write down your thoughts and review these the next day. Tone it down and draw out the facts – try and collate unbiased evidence to reinforce what is happening and how you are feeling.’
Next, she says, speak to trusted colleagues to get their take on the situation – mention in advance that you value honest, objective viewpoints.
‘Identify the person with whom you want to raise the issue, such as the group leader or your manager. Be professional and calm in your discussion – most importantly, stick to the facts and explain how this makes you feel,’ says Ireland. ‘Then ask for their view on how you can work together to rectify the issue. Be clear on what you want to achieve, why and by when.’
Whilst it’s easy to think people are intentionally out to get you, they’re often not aware of their behaviour or the impact it is having on you. ‘Flag things early on and don’t waste valuable energy allowing unhealthy emotions to simmer,’ Ireland says.
As for positives to be gleaned from the experience, she says that situations like this help to build mental toughness, a thick skin and greater self-awareness. ‘They are also excellent for developing empathy and EQ – a key trait of successful people,’ she says. ‘Observing other people’s poor behaviour provides a powerful reminder for you to act in a more professional and considerate way when dealing with others.’
Don’t do this: Shut down, get defensive or become emotional. ‘None of these behaviours will result in a good outcome,’ says Ireland. ‘Being over-emotional can distort rational thinking – we can create false realities and make mountains out of molehills.’
You’ve made a colossal mistake at work
Every week you do a hundred things right, but once in a while something slips. And occasionally, it can be a serious error with potentially career-wrecking consequences. Caroline Fernandes, an executive leadership and cultural coach (indianrenaissance.in), says that one thing to do is to pause for a moment to remember that mistakes can be viewed from multiple angles in terms of the impact they have. Who, exactly, is this affecting?
It could be that the error is a lot smaller than you think – it’s just that you are burning up inside with shame. An analogy is the cellist playing for the first time with an experienced orchestra, who plucks a couple of dud notes. He thinks he has ruined the concert, when in fact not a single member of the audience even noticed.
The fact is that everyone makes the occasional mistake, and your bosses might be more understanding than you would imagine.
‘To me, taking ownership for mistakes, and really authentically managing a crisis in a way that is effective for the business – as well as for the relationships that are liable to be impacted by the mistake – can certainly be something within our control,’ says Fernandes. ‘A mistake gives you the chance to practise authentic leadership by realising the impact, taking responsibility and working with stakeholders to develop healthy, progressive options to recover or repair what is possible.’
In short: Take a breath, get to work fixing the problem and learn from the experience.
Don’t do this: Pretend it wasn’t you. ‘Passing the blame, shying away from ownership and using tactics to evade the truth will all show you in poor light,’ says Fernandes, ‘and will not reflect a mature, professional, growth mindset.’
You have been demoted
Being demoted is mercifully rare, but if it happens, it’s easy to feel like you’ve suffered the ultimate career setback. Unlike redundancies, which can usually be explained away by difficult trading conditions, with demotion it’s hard to shake off the feeling that the decision was based entirely on poor performance. This isn’t necessarily the case, though, as people can be demoted because of structural reorganisations within a business, for example.
‘The first thing you may be thinking is that you are an utter failure if this happens to you,’ says business coach Nimisha Brahmbhatt (www.nimishabrahmbhatt.com). ‘Thinking that way is natural – so try and make sure you catch yourself before you do that. It’s important to remember that a demotion means that you are dropping a level according to someone else’s standards. Because of that, your personal resolve is vital.’
The first thing to do, she says, is to get in touch with your line manager to ask for a debrief about why the decision was made. ‘Feel free to challenge this – get HR along if necessary – and constructively state why you disagree,’ she says. ‘Ask what your employer feels would be the best way for you to progress back up the ladder.’
You may, of course, be fighting a lost cause – once a decision has been made it can be nigh on impossible to see it reversed. But all is not lost, and Brahmbhatt says that there are positives to be gleaned from a situation even as dire and embarrassing as this is. ‘Once you can see that you don’t fit into someone else’s set of standards, it gives you control,’ she says. ‘You can either choose to adapt – which is perfectly fine, if you agree with the parameters you were measured under – or you can walk away knowing that this isn’t where you want to be.’
Building on the first choice, you can take the criticism and learn how to up-skill yourself. ‘It’s actually a really good opportunity to up-level yourself and invest in your self-development,’ says Brahmbhatt. ‘That way, you will be in with a better chance of promotion next time – or you can find somewhere where the parameters are more in line with your characteristics.’
Don’t do this: accept your manager’s assessment as gospel. ‘Don’t curl up in a ball and start thinking you’re the biggest failure on the planet,’ says Brahmbhatt. ‘Chill out! You still have a job, and if they are keeping you around it means they still think you have value to offer.’