How to Work Through a Bad Situation in Your Career
I can hear it now – “Oh no, she’s going to advise people to look on the bright side of everything! How unrealistic, especially if someone is facing a terminal illness!” I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna about everything, because sometimes being overly optimistic can be dangerous, such as thinking that everything is okay while the business is failing rapidly and you’re about to lose your shirt, but being a Negative Nancy about everything in your life, including a crisis, actually makes it worse. The focus is going to be on reacting differently to a crisis in your career.
I’m going to give you two scenarios of a similar career crisis situation – a job loss – with two entirely different outcomes.
The first scenario was someone that I knew personally – I’ll call him Sam. The company for which Sam worked experienced losses due to the Y2K conversion and the dot-com bubble bursting. To help control costs, the company decided to outsource the maintenance development for their systems to a 3rd party company in India, and Sam was let go. Unfortunately for Sam, he worked in a programming language that wasn’t used throughout the area, so it was much harder for him to find a job as quickly. Rather than take the opportunity to evaluate his situation and decide what he needed to do, Sam remained bitter and angry. Since he was in a decent financial situation (his home was paid off, he had payment protection insurance for his car, and he had money in the savings account), he decided to just “sit around and enjoy himself”. However, the money started running out, so he had to find something. Since he didn’t have development skill sets that were in high demand, and he was out of work for over a year, he lost most of his value in the IT world, and he had to settle for a $20/hour QA job. The penny eventually dropped and he went back to school so he can get a better job, but it took longer than it needed to.
The second scenario involves a famous person. This person was fired from his job as a motherboard salesperson. After dealing with the initial sting of losing a job, he got his thoughts together to determine what to do next. He hated his job and realized that it wasn’t for him, but he was too timid to quit. He viewed losing his job as the kick in the pants that he needed to leave the job. He started his own IT company and became wildly successful. He sold his business for over $30 million, and after a 3 year hiatus, he started another successful IT security business. He is now featured as one of the sharks on the TV show “Shark Tank”, and he got to participate in the popular show “Dancing with the Stars”. Since Robert Herjavec viewed his bad situation as an opportunity, he was able to become better off than before.
I’m not saying that everyone will become a multimillionaire and a TV star, but what I’m trying to illustrate is the outcome will depend on how you handle the bad situation. If you handle it negatively, like Sam did, you may end up losing precious time and experience, and your value ends up dropping in the career world. If you handle it positively and constructively, like Robert Herjavec, you can become better off than what you were before the bad thing happened.
What are some ways to change your thinking about a bad situation?
View failures as lessons learned – Instead of wallowing in the disappointment of “messing up”, or refusing to take responsibility for something that went wrong, look at it as a way to evaluate what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what to do next time so it doesn’t happen again. The Army does this all the time with the “After Action Report”, which captures what was done to cause the failure so they know that when the situation happens again, they know what not to do.
Here’s a real example: I had two job offers – one for a university and another for a financial industry. The university job was the one that I really wanted, but it was a shaky job because it depended upon grant funding, and if they didn’t get the money, I would lose my job. The financial industry position was more of a sure thing, but it was something that I really didn’t want. I followed bad advice from a recruiter (who probably wanted commission from placing me in the financial job) and took the financial job. As expected, it was a disaster – I worked endless hours and it was a high-pressure position, and I ended up quitting after 3 months. Rather than chalking it up as a failure, I learned valuable lessons from it:
1. Listen to advice, but consider the source and the motivation. The recruiter really didn’t have my best interests at heart when he discouraged me from taking the university job, but it’s my fault for not going in “eyes wide open”. The lesson that I learned is listen to the advice and understand where it’s coming from before taking action.
2. Go with your gut. My gut said to take the university job because I would have been so much happier and enjoyed it more, although it was a risk to take it. That is a principle that I live by, and it really helped me in both my professional and personal life. In fact, if I didn’t go with my gut during a recent health crisis, I would not be here to write this blog post.
3. While money does matter, my quality of life and enjoyment matters more. The first thing that I look at now is whether I will enjoy the work and feel satisfied, and I make career decisions based on that. Even if I’m in a situation where I have to choose something to pay the bills, I will work at that job while continuing to search for my perfect job, and to help tolerate the job that I have to do, I’ll keep my eyes on the prize (finding the job that I want to do) to help me cope with the situation.
View getting fired, laid off or demoted as an opportunity – You may be in a job that you don’t particularly like, but you may be afraid to take a giant step into something else, like a new career or entrepreneurship. Getting fired, laid off or demoted can be the “kick in the pants” that you needed to get you to change. Robert Herjavec’s story is a perfect illustration of viewing his dismissal as an opportunity.
Here’s a real example: Due to financial restructuring, my position (along with about 100 other positions) was being eliminated from IBM. I loved that job, I loved my colleagues, and I loved my boss. The only way that I was able to stay with IBM was to relocate to Raleigh. I wanted to relocate, but my father was ill, and I didn’t want to move too far away. While I was disappointed, I didn’t wallow in it. I viewed it as an opportunity. I’ve always wanted to go into business for myself, and since I was getting a very generous severance for leaving, I formed my own business, and I started teaching more classes at the university. It was the best thing to happen to me. I build my leadership experience, my confidence grew, and I ended up with a nice nest egg from selling the company.
If something isn’t working right, look for the plan B or plan X – This gives you the reputation as a can-do person, and it shows that you’re not going to waste time banging your head over something that just isn’t working. It shows that you know how to think creatively to come up with a solution.
A perfect example of this is the story of drug manufacturer Pfizer. Pfizer was trying to invent a drug to help with hypertension. Unfortunately, the drug that they were inventing, sildenafil citrate, didn’t work. However, there was an interesting side effect to this drug. 80% of the male trial subjects were getting erections. So they came up with a plan B – start marketing sildenafil citrate, also known as Viagra, as a drug for erectile dysfunction, and a smash hit was born.
If nothing seems to be working and it seems hopeless, find a constructive distraction – A normal distraction like watching TV shows about mad housewives, drinking glasses of wine and spending hours on social media can help, but it doesn’t give you a good return on your investment regarding your career. A constructive distraction not only helps you “forget about your troubles”, but also gives you other benefits that could help your career, your financial situation and your health. What are some constructive distractions? Here are a few examples:
- Make arts and crafts – You can make money and save money
- Write on a blog – You can develop your writing experience and possibly make money
- Make YouTube videos – You can develop your presentation experience and possibly make money
- Take classes – You can build your skill set and your social network
- Regularly participate in sports, like ice skating, kickball, and golf – You can get fit and build your social network
Well, what if it really stinks now?!?!
I understand that it can be hard to look at bright side of failure if your current job likes to hold failure against you. I’ve worked in an environment where this was the case. Stay with me – it’s still an opportunity and lesson learned.
- The lesson learned is it shows you the character of your company or department or manager, so it tells you about companies or people that you DON’T want to work for.
- It also means that you’re getting a huge warning sign that you need to plan your exit strategy. Unfortunately, most people who are laid off are caught completely off guard, and you’ve been given the gift of getting the “heads up” so you can start planning.
- It gives you a chance to build your network of advocates through connections, especially those who know how you work so they can vouch for you. If one person says you’re bad while 10 people say you’re good, the good will outweigh the bad because the person asking about you may think that the reason why you got one bad review is it’s something personal. Another thing that can happen is you may encounter your future boss at one of your networking events, and since he or she witnessed what you can do personally, your future boss is not going to pay too much attention to what your old boss thought of you.
I have a story about my cousin, who I’ll call John, who experienced a situation where his manager held his mistakes against him. It was difficult to stay positive because his boss made his life hell. Not only would his boss make him feel worthless, but the boss would deliberately snub him at work. For example, the boss would bring in cupcakes for the other employees’ birthdays, but the boss deliberately left John out. He also got word that his boss was trashing him behind his back. The final insult was the boss had John report to a person who he couldn’t stand. After getting over the initial hurt and anger, John took a deep breath, stepped back, and evaluated his situation. He knew that his boss didn’t like him, but there were at least 150 people in the company who thought extremely highly of him, and that’s not an exaggeration. At least 10 of those people were senior-level executives. Rather than wallow in his situation, he took action. He participated in company events where those people were so he can strengthen the relationship and have them continue to be his advocates, and he started building his presence outside of the department. Another slick trick that he did was he befriended his new supervisor, and this paid off in spades – his new supervisor started singing his praises to anyone who would listen. Around this time, there was a very high-profile project in his company, and one of the positions that were available was John’s dream job. John signed up to be a part of this project in his dream job position. Because he had so many advocates that went to bat for him, he got that job, and he’s the happiest that he’s been.
Now, John could have just wallowed in his misery by coming home miserable and drowning his pain with unhealthy habits like overeating, smoking, too much alcohol, or worst case, drugs. The only thing that remaining negative would have gotten him was unhealthier and a drop in his value because it would give the manager who didn’t like him more opportunity to bad-mouth him. Instead, he looked at it as an opportunity (his value was still high due to his reputation outside of his department) and a lesson learned (now that he was a boss himself, he learned how NOT to manage people), and he ended up in a better position and an happier job environment.
Failure is nothing but feedback, and feedback is information to help polish your goals, reevaluate and redefine your goals, so you can go in the direction on what will work for you. – Dr. Joe Vitale