Career Setbacks

Getting Back on Track

Career Setbacks - Getting Back on Track

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Learn how to overcome hurdles successfully.

We all have bad days at work from time to time. But some days are much worse than others – creating career setbacks that can feel very difficult to get over.

If you've received a layoff notice, learned that you've been passed over for a promotion, or been formally reprimanded for your performance, you've had more than just "a rough day at the office"!

So what's the best way to respond, so that you quickly get your career back on track?

In this article, we'll explain six steps that you can take to overcome setbacks and move forward again with confidence.

Step 1: Acknowledge Your Feelings

Allow yourself time to understand what's happened, and give yourself permission to feel upset. It's important to recognize and admit to your emotions: keeping them inside may only make them seem larger and more overwhelming than they really are.

  • Take some time to explore unresolved issues that often surface in times of stress and setback. Do you have lingering self-doubts? What does your "inner critic" say to you that makes you feel unworthy? Evaluate thinking patterns that may keep you trapped in a negative cycle.
  • Seek support and assurance from others. It's really important to have at least one person that you can talk to about what's happening. You might need to vent your frustrations, or you might appreciate having a sympathetic audience. Often the perspectives of others help you see your situation more clearly.
  • But also try to remember that, no matter how disappointed, upset, angry, or discouraged you are right now, these feelings will pass.

Step 2: Expand Your View of Success

Encountering a career setback does not mean that you've failed completely, or that you're unsuccessful or unworthy. The situation you're facing is not a reflection of your overall value as a person or as a team member.

  • Put the setback into perspective. This is only one incident in your career. Don't make it into a catastrophic event that will affect you forever.
  • Practice rational and positive thinking, and make sure that your perspective is well aligned with the reality of the situation.
  • Avoid focusing on things that failed. Say instead, "I tried, and it didn't work out this time." This will help to keep your viewpoint positive.
  • Learn from this experience. And rather than viewing your setback as a problem to surmount, focus on the future opportunities that will open up for you now.

Step 3: Strengthen Your Skills

Use this as a chance to become even better at what you do. Would sharpening your existing skills help you to be more effective – to get better feedback from your boss, or perhaps to secure your next promotion? Or maybe you need to widen your experience, and develop new skills, to take your career in a different direction? In either case, this is the perfect time to start.

  • Highlight any areas of your current role in which you lack confidence, and plan how to address them. Your manager should be able to offer advice and support. And there may be learning and development opportunities within your organization. But, if not, look for ways to access them independently.
  • Focus on skills that have served you well in your career so far. How can you make the most of them now? And do some of them need to be updated?
  • Think about your interests and passions. Doing this will likely suggest new directions that you could go in. It should also help you to explore the new skills you'll need to do so.

Step 4: Build Your Resilience

It's important to be mentally tough and able to maintain your professionalism even when things aren't going well. Resilience is essential. A resilient person will likely bounce back from a setback much more quickly and easily than someone who is more rigid and "thin-skinned."

Here are some key characteristics of resilience that you can develop in yourself:

  • High self-efficacy. Believe in your ability to be successful. Don't simply want, hope or try to be successful. Expect success, and put yourself in a position to capitalize on the opportunities you've been given.
  • Positive outlook. Be optimistic about your future, and don't allow present circumstances to cloud your vision of yourself and your potential.
  • Introspection. Ask yourself what's working and what isn't. Understand that success requires flexibility, and constantly look for ways to improve.
  • Focus on controllable things. If you can't change it or control it, then your energy is wasted when you dwell on it. When you feel in control, and focus on things that you can influence, you'll also reduce much of the stress and pressure that you're feeling. Keep making decisions and solving problems, even when you doubt yourself and feel less than confident.


To learn more about developing resilience, listen to our interview with Cal Crow. Find out what makes someone resilient, and pick up great tips on how to develop your own resilience and self-efficacy.

Step 5: Determine What Went Wrong

Your own role in a setback will vary from situation to situation. A company-wide set of layoffs is probably beyond your control. But being terminated or reprimanded for performance issues is something for which you can take more responsibility. Regardless, it's important that you make a thorough assessment of the situation to maximize your learning and move forward.

  • Identify the aspects of the setback that were and were not in your control. Was (or is) the job a good fit for your skills? Do you have what it takes to be successful in the role – or do you need more training, experience, or other development? Did your organization's leaders simply make a staffing decision based on economics?
  • Determine what you need to do to learn from your mistakes and avoid repeating them. What would you do differently next time? What behaviors or decisions contributed to this particular setback?
  • Where possible, correct your mistakes and reduce the damage as much as you can. This is especially important if your actions had consequences for others on your team.
  • Avoid blaming others, because this only keeps you focused on the negative aspects of the situation. It's not a constructive use of your energy.

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Step 6: Take Action

When you know what factors contributed to the setback, develop an action plan that will help you to get your career back on track.

  • Create a strategy for your career. You have a new perspective and a new set of circumstances. What you used to believe, and the direction in which you were heading, may no longer apply. Assess all of your options, and determine which ones provide the greatest potential now. Brainstorm ideas, and talk to your network to explore a broad range of opportunities.
  • Break down your strategy into a detailed career plan. Using what you've learned about yourself and what you need to improve, determine what you now need to accomplish – and by when – to develop SMART goals.
  • Start working toward your goals now – even if you haven't fully overcome your negative feelings. With each step that you take, your self-confidence will increase. You'll be motivated to keep moving forward, and you'll believe in yourself more and more.


Want to learn more about getting beyond setbacks and "unsticking" your career? Read this interview with Tim Butler, author of "Getting Unstuck," for practical information and helpful hints.

Key Points

When you suffer a setback in your career, you need to realize that it's not the end of the world. You're not the only person who's lost a job or made a big mistake. You are, however, the only one who has the ability to turn the situation around and make it a positive event in your life.

To recover from a setback, there are six key steps to take:

1. Acknowledge your feelings.

2. Expand your view of success.

3. Strengthen your skills.

4. Build your resilience.

5. Determine what went wrong.

6. Take action.

A setback will only hold you back if you let it!

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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