Find the upside during a downturn
When your world suddenly veers off course with a missed promotion, stretch assignment given to someone else, perfect new home awarded to a higher bidder — or a global pandemic turning the entire world upside down — how you respond can help you wilt or grow.
“Even a dramatic career failure can become a springboard to success if you respond in the right ways,” according to research published in Harvard Business Review.
Although there is a significant body of research demonstrating that success breeds success, new evidence shows that an early career setback can lead to greater success in the long run. Research reported in Nature Communications in 2019 explored the career trajectories of two groups of young scientists. One group had just barely secured important grants with the National Institutes of Health; the other group had just barely missed securing the same grants.
Ten years later, among these statistically similar groups, those who had lost out on the grant actually had more successful careers. “These people became better versions of themselves,” said Dashun Wang, co-author and associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.
The persistence effect
The researchers found that early setbacks can cause performance improvement among those who persevere. This finding flies in the face of extensive data that shows early success leads to more success due to greater recognition, attention, resources and confidence. And, it’s true, early failures can cause some people to give up. But, among those who persist, early challenges can impart valuable lessons that are hard to learn otherwise.
The researchers are quick to point out there is no need to go looking for failure but, when challenges arise (as they inevitably do) it’s good to know growth is possible and you may be better off in the long run.
What happens next
What you do (and don’t do) following setbacks makes the difference. Behaviors to avoid include blaming others, being inflexible and not seeking advice. Behaviors to embrace are healthy self-reflection, searching out new paths and seizing the right opportunity when it arrives.
These are critical steps to finding growth inherent in almost any challenge.
Explore what went wrong
High achievers tend to attribute their success to personal effort and talent. That makes sense because hard work tends to pay off. But social psychologists have found that high achievers also tend to blame failures on external sources. That may be a great way to protect self-esteem in the short-run, but it also prevents real learning and growth.
A better approach is to take a deep breath and conduct a candid analysis. Turn to mentors, colleagues and other leaders in the organization to learn the hard truth of how you may have contributed to a less than ideal outcome. Only by knowing where you may not have measured up can you address gaps. Do you need training to expand skills? A change in leadership or communication style? Better interpersonal relationships? A more polished presence?
“People who rebound really explore how they may have contributed,” according to the authors of the Nature Communications study. Now, all that said, there are times when a situation is simply unworkable and you may need to transition to a new setting to fully realize your goals. Other times, an organization under duress will be forced to cut back staff or limit opportunities for growth. Even then, an honest assessment of how you fare in times of crisis can provide important insights into areas for self-development.
Being fired, demoted, laid off, passed over, disciplined; all are extremely painful and, sometimes, demotivating experiences. Your first instinct may be to escape. That’s okay for a moment but don’t stay there. Take a break to regain your emotional footing and then look at the challenge with clear eyes and fresh ideas.
Seek out hidden opportunities
In moments of crisis, thinking can get foggy and it can be difficult to see a path forward. Talking with a career coach or trusted mentor can help clarify career goals and uncover opportunities to make changes you may have resisted in a more stable environment.
Change the perspective of others
Once you’ve bolstered your skills it’s time to demonstrate them to others. Showcase, document and share your new skills or attitude with your boss and talk candidly about how you are working to turn challenge into growth. Lean into your network to spread the word.
One final piece of contrarian advice is to keep a failure resume to privately track disappointments and missteps to both identify patterns of troublesome behavior and appreciate obstacles overcome. A lecturer at Edinburgh Medical School made headlines by publishing her failure resume which included graduate programs she didn’t get into, degrees she didn’t finish, harsh feedback from a prior boss and rejections by several orchestras.
Today, that resume demonstrates that 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (along with Kanye West and Kelly Clarkson), may have been right — what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.