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How To Bounce Back After Being Passed Over For Promotion

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“I’m totally unmotivated to go to work. What do I do? ” Janelle (*name and identifying details changed) recently had a big, public disappointment at work—she was passed over for the top job in her organization. She was highly qualified and had been encouraged to apply, and she went all-out to get the job. When the other candidate was selected, it was a public failure that was both personally disappointing and also caused her to question her leadership’s priorities. Janelle considered quitting, but she was committed to her team and the project they were working on, and she wanted to see it through. She also had incentives (bonus and stock vesting) that made it financially advantageous to stick around for another 9 months. Plus, the job market felt pretty uncertain to her—maybe now was not the right time to quit her job. So she decided to stay through year-end, but she was finding it difficult to move past her disappointment and find the motivation to go to work each day.

Janelle is not alone. My client Gavin was in the same position just a year ago. “If I leave now, it will look like I was a sore loser.” He wanted to stick it out and find a way to leave on his own terms. Many professionals bump up against a similar setback at least once in their career. Bouncing back after a big disappointment requires a shift in perspective and a re-focusing of energies to identify and commit to a path forward.

Feel your feelings. Before you can access your mojo and positive motivation, you need to work through your feelings. Disappointment. Shock. Hurt. Anger. Embarrassment. Grief. Self-doubt. Outrage. All these emotions (and more) may arise when you are passed over for a promotion. Give yourself time to feel your feelings and practice self-compassion, offering to yourself the kindness that you would offer a friend in the same situation. If you can, you might want to take a few days off or at least work from home. Only after you allow yourself to feel can you begin to transform your raw emotions into a more positive attitude. Then you will be ready for the following strategies to re-build your motivation:

Take perspective. When you have experienced a failure, setback, or rejection, it is easy to get stuck in negative thought patterns. But we humans are uniquely able to choose a perspective or framing for a situation. Try on multiple perspectives. Zoom out: what do you see? Your career is just one part of your life, and perhaps, taking in the big picture—health, relationships, overall career trajectory—will help you see that this disappointment is just part of a larger and more positive whole. Another way to take perspective is to project yourself forward in time. Today feels pretty bad, but a year from now, two years from now, ten years from now it will look and feel different. This will just one chapter in the story, and you may look back at is as a real turning point. Another way to take perspective is to flip the narrative. Maybe this feels like the first worst thing that ever happened to you. How might it be the best thing that ever happened to you? There are an infinite number of ways to look at this and perspectives to take. Actively exploring multiple perspectives and then choosing one that puts you in the driver’s seat can help you find your mojo.

Create a learning agenda. You may have encountered a ceiling on your advancement, but you can continue to learn and build your experience to set yourself up for your next job. Consider whether there is a skill or area of expertise that you want to develop and create a plan for learning. You might focus on the business or market, organizational structure or subject matter expertise. For those who enjoy learning, challenge and accomplishment, a learning agenda can be very motivating. And tapping into a growth mindset builds resiliency. Plus it may help you shift your career path, as your learning agenda helps you prepare for your next role.

Connect and build relationships. “Relationships are the single most important factor in your career success and professional growth.” According to executive coach and author Michael Melcher, a portfolio of connections that are real, meaningful, vital, and diverse is a must-have for career success, and this is particularly true now. Reach out both internally and externally to build and maintain your network. The best time to reach out is not when you are beginning your job search; it is now. Actively connect with your workplace colleagues, who will help you be more successful and will also make work more enjoyable. Reach out to weaker ties, acquaintances, old friends or colleagues with a “ping”—an email that doesn’t require a response—sending them a personal update, an article or just “I was walking by our old coffee shop and thought of you.” Don’t expect a response, but if you get one, make a plan to connect. Make sure to reach out to someone every week.

Help others. One form of relationship building that is often overlooked is being a benefactor Getting passed over is disempowering, but you are not powerless to make a difference and to grow your influence. A key way to do this is to find ways to actively help others. The most obvious way to be a benefactor is to support more junior people on your team or in your network through mentoring, advising and sponsoring. But you can be a benefactor to anyone simply by being helpful. Be a sounding board and help a colleague reframe a situation and get unstuck. Review a friend’s daughter’s resume. Helping others builds happiness and boosts self-esteem. It also reaffirms the mutuality of relationships—sometimes you are the benefactor and sometimes you are the beneficiary!

Build your legacy. So, you didn’t get the big job, and that stinks. But you are still capable of delivering value and making an impact. Step back and consider what you want to accomplish before you leave—your legacy. Think in terms of outcomes, process and people. Is there a project or deliverable that you want to see to conclusion? Perhaps you want to improve or streamline the way the team works. Or maybe there are individuals that you want to set up for promotion or succession. Set clear goals and a time-frame for achieving them. Be the author of the story you want to tell when you move on, on your terms.

Setbacks happen, but each of these steps can help you access sources of value and motivation that can help you navigate the disappointment and then take charge to make the most of your situation and move on, on your terms.