Career setback… How to deal with a

Why is it important?

Being unable to deal with and move on from a career setback or demotion is likely to be damaging to your career and demotivating for you as an individual.

Such events happen for all kinds of reasons, and can often be out of your control, with no bearing on your performance. Increasing globalisation, for instance, could herald structural changes or a management shake-up that results in the dissolution of your present role and you being assigned a new job title and responsibilities – a lateral transfer on the face of it, but in reality one rung down the corporate ladder.

But even if the setback or demotion is related to poor performance or a weakness on your part, it is important to learn from the experience rather than let it fester.

Where do I start?

You need to understand why the decision was taken, which means having a frank conversation with your manager. You have a right to know and shouldn’t feel shy or intimidated about asking them for more information.

Even if you don’t like what you hear, it is the first step in accepting the situation. Going into denial is the worst thing you can do. The sooner you get to the nub of what happened, the less long-term damage it can have.

Similarly, many people feel humiliated by the experience. This is understandable, but if the setback is due to a lack of skills or ability, the sooner you can show the decision-makers that you’re willing to overcome your shortcomings, the better. If you genuinely feel unfairly treated – and as an HR professional you should be a good judge of this – discuss these feelings with your manager or another superior.

Ride it out

Give yourself time to think, and don’t make any hasty decisions. Talk it over with friends and family, but avoid sharing your thoughts with colleagues, and don’t bad-mouth your manager or others involved in the decision.

A demotion can be harder to deal with than a redundancy – you aren’t out of a job, but have to find a way of working in an uncertain environment with people who might doubt your abilities. As a consequence, some people take the setback as a trigger to look for a new job. This may not necessarily be the right thing to do, so think carefully.

“In these circumstances, people want to take some kind of action so that they don’t have to deal with any further uncertainty,” says David Cumberbatch, director at Xancam Consulting. “Perhaps the best thing you can do is acknowledge you have entered into a period of ambiguity and work with, rather than against, this.”

Clarify your expectations

Try to keep things in perspective – there is no reason why the setback should prevent you from fulfilling your career aims. “You can still achieve everything you want to, just by using a different tactic,” says Cumberbatch, who likens the experience to having to catch a later bus.

“A career change only becomes a setback when your only objective was to get on the bus and you haven’t given any thought to where it is taking you. Think about what you ultimately want to get from your career and stay alert to any new opportunities the change presents for you to work towards these goals.”

Cumberbatch adds that there are many examples of individuals who seemingly took a step back by moving into a new area and broadening their knowledge “only to return to their previous organisation or department at a much higher level than if they had stayed there”.

If it is time to move on

Some people worry about explaining the demotion on a CV. You should be honest but take a positive stance when questioned, and tell the interviewer what the experience taught you and how you turned the situation around.

If you do decide to look for another job, be sure you have shed all negative feelings or sense of injustice and that you have properly moved on so you come across as positive and inspire confidence in your abilities.

If you only do 5 things

  1. Find out why the decision was made.
  2. Confront any weaknesses and work to eradicate them.
  3. Don’t be put off achieving your career aims.
  4. Don’t make any rash decisions.
  5. Deal with negative feelings sooner rather than later.

Firing Back, Jeffrey Sonnefeld and Andrew Ward, Harvard Business School Publishing, £18.99, ISBN 1591393019


How to become career resilient

How to risk-proof your career

How to change career

Expert’s view how do I achieve my full potential?

David Cumberbatch,
director, Xancam Consulting

What’s the best way to adjust your mindset to deal with the situation?

When you have some kind of responsibility taken away from you, try not to view this as a demotion or setback. Instead, simply view it as a career change and try to fully understand the reasons for that change before you fall into the trap of ‘catastrophising’ what has happened. View it as an opportunity to better yourself and gain new experiences.

Have you ever experienced a career setback? What was your personal strategy for dealing with it?

When I was turned down for an opportunity I fully expected and wanted to achieve, it would have been easy to view it as a setback. Instead, by staying firmly focused on broader, longer-term career goals, I was able to adapt quickly to initially disappointing career circumstances and take advantage of new opportunities, achieving my overall goal faster than if things had worked out as initially planned.

Are there any new theories on dealing with career setbacks or demotion?

It is no longer accepted that individuals have to go through a ‘bereavement cycle’. Instead, new theories focus on how best to help individuals limit the initial dip in performance that results from a change in their working circumstances and improve their ability to make sense of what happened and adapt to this.

What are your top tips?

  • Don’t make any rash or hasty decisions.
  • Seek to understand the reasons for the change.
  • Stay attentive to any new opportunities this presents.

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