Let Workplace Failures Strengthen … Not Ruin … You

Donald Trump routinely asks the wannabe apprentices that land in the boardroom the same thing each week on The Apprentice. In the last 15 minutes, he probes the project leader, “Who failed on the task? Who’s responsible for causing you to be here?” Fingers and mouths point at each other. Excuses flow like a rushing river.

If one fesses up that they screwed up, Trump usually gives them the boot. The dreaded words, “You’re fired,” become the favored topic in many workplaces the following day. Should Trump ax the person because they made a mistake? Failed at a task? Maybe, maybe not.

No successful person I know of has climbed their career ladder without making some mistakes and encountering failure along the way, including Donald Trump. Some are small, some huge. Some can derail a career, never getting it back on track; others derail, jumping tracks leading in a direction never really envisioned or planned for. 

The bottom line is that failure is a fact of life. It can sink you. Or, it can be the beginning of a resurrection. Your attitude and response will be a critical factor in the overall outcome. It’s not uncommon to look back and say, “Being fired was the single best thing that ever happened to me.” 

To understand the feeling of failure, it’s important to understand the stages of it. Shock, fear, anger, blame, shame and despair are identified by authors Carole Hyatt and Linda Gottlieb in their book, When Smart People Fail. 

According to Hyatt and Gottlieb, failure is a judgment about an event or events. When a career failure hits, it can affect your self-esteem, your wallet, even your social status. When failure surfaces, it’s common to feel isolated. You are inclined to feel that it is a unique, first-time-in-the-universe lifetime experience for anyone. Get over that one—it’s not.

Being let go is usually a shock. Even if you have an inkling that all is not well and something is in the air, it’s still a blow to the ego when a pink slip arrives or that a mishap lands in your lap. 

You are stunned that you didn’t see it coming sooner; that you could have been taken/duped, or that you trusted someone, or something, that betrayed your trust. You are fearful that whatever the loss, it will have a major effect on career, your pocketbook, your family. What will people think when word gets out that you were let go?

When the shock begins to wear off, you are ticked. You are angry at anyone who could be connected to your demise. And the one you are usually angry the most at is yourself. How could you—the intelligent, hard-working person—been ignored, misunderstood, used, fired, etc. How come you didn’t bail ship before being tossed overboard?

The greater the anger you feel, you more likely you will look for who is responsible for making your life hell. Then, you can point your finger at the culprit, which, in turn, leads to the blame game.

Blaming can be directed at anyone, including yourself. Most likely, it will be aimed at others. When the blame game arrives, you begin to sidestep some of the ingredients for the failure. It may be impossible to probe in and figure out exactly what happened—to determine what part you took, if any, in losing your job.

The final steps of feeling shame (How could you have been let go in the first place?) to utter despair (there’s no hope, I’ll never have a good position again) round out the feelings that a firing can create. 

In reconnecting, recreating and reinventing yourself and your career, you need to be clear on:

• What happened?
• What factors could you control, influence or alter?
• What factors could you not control?
• What have you learned, both the pros and cons?

It’s common to spend “in shock” time focusing on the factors that couldn’t be controlled—if you are going to get stuck, this is where it happens. Let it go, you can’t do anything about it once it’s happened. Instead, determine if you could have controlled, influenced or altered events (this is part of the lessons-learned path) that contributed to your dismissal; be clear on what happened that led up to it; and finally, what lessons did you take away?

As an employer, I would much rather have someone on my team who has hit a few bumps in their career path and grown from them. If a potential employee told me that everything has always worked well, that an idea had never been rejected; that she really hadn’t run into any problems of magnitude in her work life; and that the reason she was looking for another position was “a better opportunity” or some clone of the phrase, my initial reaction would be, “Next.”

Experience counts and under that umbrella comes the good and not so good.