5 Ways to Overcome a Work Setback

Employees regularly rank making a mistake among their biggest workplace fears. How best to recover.

It was supposed to be a formality. Every year the client’s contract with the firm came up for renewal, and every year they signed a new one. It was so automatic that the revenue from the deal was already figured into your sales goals. So when the client decided not to renew and left for a competitor, it came as a shock—both to you and your manager.

Whether it’s losing a client, blowing a presentation, or missing a deadline (to name just a few), nothing shakes an employee’s confidence more than a work setback. Questions about ability, performance, and job security start to creep in, leading to anxiety and even depression. Employees regularly rank mistakes among their top five workplace fears, and about 15% of them believe that making one will get them fired.

But experts say mistakes at work are to be expected. Nobody’s perfect, after all. “Things don’t always go smoothly,” says Val Olson, a career and leadership coach at Korn Ferry Advance. In fact, Olson says, failing is an invaluable part of learning and growing in your job and career. Here are five ways employees can try to emerge stronger and better following a setback:

Own it.

The first step in overcoming a work setback is to own it. “Don’t deny that it happened or try to cover it up,” says Olson. Blaming someone else, making an excuse, or minimizing the mistake will only make things worse. To be sure, not holding yourself accountable could be even more egregious than the mistake itself—studies show a majority of employers would consider firing an employee who doesn’t take responsibility for their actions.

Take stock.

Setbacks at work happen for all kinds of reasons, among them poor planning, lack of resources, unhealthy team dynamics, and external factors. Frances Weir, associate principal with Korn Ferry Advisory, says it’s important to understand which factors or behaviors you can—and can’t—control. Ask yourself, says Weir, if there was anything you could have done to create a different outcome. “Understanding the cause and effect of what went wrong can help you avoid the mistake in the future,” she says. 

Seek feedback.

Everyone messes up from time to time. To understand what worked and what didn’t, experts suggest seeking the perspective of others directly involved in the situation. But don’t stop there. Ask for feedback from bosses, colleagues, and mentors about their own past setbacks and how they got back on track. Often, says Weir, people are more open about their mistakes than they are about their successes. “It’s the largest struggles that lead to the most learning and growth,” she says.

Regroup and reset.

After reflecting on how things went wrong, create a strategy to avoid the same pitfalls the next time around. Set new goals with your team or manager, develop an action plan to achieve them, and communicate regularly on progress and obstacles. 

Have a short-term memory.

Does a quarterback stop passing after throwing an interception? Does a hitter refuse to go to bat after striking out? No, they forget about the setback and focus on the next opportunity. Olson says employees—and managers—should treat work mistakes the same way. Don’t dwell on them. “Stay positive, and visualize success the next time around,” says Olson. 


For more career advice, connect with a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.