Dealing with Career Obstacles and Setbacks
Professionals in all fields should expect to encounter a range of obstacles and setbacks during their careers. Sometimes you get plenty of time to think about how you’re going to respond but you also need to be able to deal with obstacles that appear on the scene without warning and setbacks that take you completely by surprise.
Career obstacles are factors that are, or appear to be, in the way of the career objectives you have set for yourself. An example of a career obstacle is the manager who refuses to share your view that you are management material. Another would be a series of knock-backs in response to your applications for jobs that would advance your career to the next stage.
Career setbacks have the ability to make you feel like your career is going backwards. For example, a promotion you assumed to be yours doesn’t eventuate when you had set your heart on being appointed. Or a project you’ve been leading hits problems outside of your direct control and you anticipate impacts on your hard won professional reputation.
Successful professionals understand the inevitability of career obstacles and setbacks and are in a position to provide you with examples of situations they have faced that had the potential to derail their career. In contrast, over the course of your career you will also encounter people who have fallen victim to circumstances that have adversely impacted their career plans for a long time and sometimes permanently.
Making sure that you are in the best possible shape for dealing with whatever career obstacles and setbacks come your way is an important aspect of career management. It pays to become adept in:
- critical thinking; and
- contingency planning.
How self-management helps you deal with career obstacles and setbacks
Self-management is an important aspect of coping with career obstacles and setbacks because it enables you to deal with emotional reactions that can otherwise get in the way of an effective response to your situation.
Self-management begins with self-awareness, which includes having the capacity to reflect on how you respond emotionally as well as intellectually to particular situations. Being aware of your reactions allows you to keep them in perspective and can free you to make informed and thoughtful choices about what to do next, including in situations which take you by surprise.
For example, a young engineer with several years work experience in the same firm had emphasised to her manager that she was keen to take on a project management role. She had worked very hard to prove her worth to the company and had put her hand up for various roles that enabled her to demonstrate her management potential. Being knocked back for a team leader role in favour of an external candidate left her bitterly disappointed and angry.
Wisely, she recognised that her state of mind when she heard the news was not conducive to a constructive conversation with her manager about his decision. She opted instead to de-brief with a supportive colleague. In a calmer state of mind and with some thinking time behind her, she found herself much better placed for the conversation that enabled her to understand why she had not been selected on this occasion. Her manager subsequently supported her in another application which proved successful.
Self-management also includes recognising the part you have played in whatever situation is concerning you. For example, the young engineer in the above example came to realise that her disappointment about not being selected was accentuated by her very high expectations of herself which she knew could be unrealistically high.
For more about self-management see the articles:
Why critical thinking is important
‘Critical thinking’ refers to the capacity to go beyond what is obvious by thinking analytically about factors that influence your situation. It also refers to an ability to rise above the detail of situation in order to see the bigger picture. And it includes ‘outside the square’ creative thinking.
For example, the professional who missed out on a much anticipated promotion in the example above knew that she needed to needed to reflect on the factors that were influencing her own state of mind. She also needed to look beyond her own disappointment and anger in order to see the situation from her manager’s perspective.
With time to reflect she came to see that her sense of failure was associated with parental expectations as well as rivalry between her and an older sibling. And the anger she had initially felt towards her manager was more closely associated with her feelings about the pressure she had been feeling to succeed in the eyes of her family. In combination with developing these personal insights she also thought more carefully about her manager’s need to appoint a more experienced person to this particular role.
Equipped with these insights, she prepared for a meeting with her manager by developing a few questions that would convey her interest in understanding his rationale and exploring how he saw her potential for future opportunities. She also found words to express her disappointment without coming across as critical of his decision-making.
For more ideas relating to critical thinking see the article Being more strategic: Developing a helicopter mind.
Where contingency planning fits
Contingency planning is about being as ready as you can be for when an expected outcome does not eventuate or when a ‘left field’ disruption occurs. Where career setbacks and obstacles are concerned, contingency planning can be useful for any situation where the impact of not achieving what you expect will have a significant effect.
For example, an IT professional knew well in advance that positions would be made redundant in a forthcoming merger between his employer and a much larger firm. But he felt confident that his career track record and considerable experience would be enough to secure a position in the merged business. He also assumed there would be plenty of career development opportunities ahead in the expanded organisation.
It came as a complete surprise when was told that his role, along with many others, was being made redundant though he was to be given an opportunity to apply for any of a number of new roles. However without an up-to-date resume and with no recent experience of applying for jobs, he found himself unprepared for this major setback in his career.
Contingency planning fits comfortably into an overall approach to career development. It involves:
- assessing the risks in your career plans;
- checking the assumptions built into your plans; and
- putting contingencies in place.
The IT professional in the example above would have benefited from facing the possibility of retrenchment much earlier. And his contingency planning could have included maintaining an up-to-date resume and honing his interview skills.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an organisation development consultant and facilitator, providing consulting services through FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd.