The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
Can you stay true to who you are without sacrificing your success? Absolutely YES.
*** A BIG thank you to my readers now in 75 countries around the world! Wow. ***

When The Wheels Fall Off

What To Do 
When The Wheels Fall Off

Sometimes when you least expect it,
the wheels fall off at work.
Now what do you do? 

The most successful people in the world have all had setbacks. Every one of them has hit a bump in the road on the path to greatness. Sometimes the wheels just fall off the cart. These people moved through their careers with the normal mix of minor victories and defeats and then BAM -  along comes a major upset. They're shocked into a new reality that they didn't choose, didn't want, and didn't expect. The same will likely happen to you at some point.

     -  You're laid off unexpectedly.
     -  You're fired without notice.
     -  You're passed over for a promotion you deserve.
     -  You're reassigned to a new role without any say.
     -  You make <what feels like> a non-recoverable mistake.

My most memorable setback was the day I got fired from a big and high profile job. It still stands as one of the worst days of my life all these years later. I was a top performer. I exceeded every goal on my plan. I was well liked, and even more importantly, well respected by senior leaders, my peers, and my team. I loved my job. And then the wheels fell off. I walked into a meeting and was fired on the spot. 

All the long hours, the sacrifices, and hard work didn't matter in that moment. I was stunned. So was everyone else. But that didn't change the outcome. When the wheels fell off for me, I struggled to understand what happened and why. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. In fact, it was outrageously wrong in many ways. And yet, it didn't matter. 

I remember very clearly being told by a trusted advisor that the company could fire me for wearing a purple shirt if they wanted to. I could preach about right vs. wrong, fair vs. unfair, just vs. unjust until the cows came home. It didn't matter. This insight has proven to be true over and over again as I've helped others face challenging situations over the years. 

Sometimes the wheels just fall off. How we respond makes all the difference in how we recover. Today, I share my thoughts on how best to recover  ~ quickly and gracefully. I also share the rest of my own story in the Bottom Line, for more perspective on the importance of grace.

Five Steps To Recovery

Before I talk about recovery, I want to first acknowledge that when the wheels fall off at work, there are a lot of feelings that come to the surface. Disappointment, shock, anger, frustration, fear of embarrassment, and concern for the future usually top the list. When people say "it's meant to be" and "don't let it get you down," you know they've either a) never been through something as significant as you're experiencing or b) they're so used to disappointment that they don't expect anything better for themselves or others.

It takes time and energy to recover from significant negative events at work and come back as good or better than before. That said, it's 100% possible and not as hard as you might think once the initial feelings settle down.

Here are five steps that I've used myself and encouraged many others to use when the wheels fall off.

1.  Don't Panic. Don't React.

When we're faced with disappointment, shock, or anger our natural instinct is to react. We're vulnerable and it puts us squarely in offensive or defensive posture. Our best bet is always, always, always to avoid reacting strongly in any way. My trick for this? Buy time. I've seen this go terribly wrong and also very right. 

Part 1.  Immediately.  If you can swing it, say this no matter what the triggering event: "I'm surprised and disappointed. I really don't know what to say beyond that. I clearly need some time to process the news." If you don't understand what's happened or why, you can add, "Can you share more about how you came to this decision?" Picture a fish when it's first taken out of the water. That's what you don't want to do, flapping about and making a mess. Get back in the water and try to stay calm. Another tip? Avert your eyes downward and think of the word "calm" to refocus your mind from the natural emotion you're feeling. (Sounds dumb. Really works.)

Part II.  The next 24 hours.  The hardest part of dealing with these situations is having to talk with other people. If we speak with people right away, we sometimes say things we later come to regret. Most people will absolutely understand if you say, "Here's what I know. <Headline only.> I don't have all the information and I'd rather not talk about it just yet if that's okay." Very few people will push your boundaries on this, particularly in the first day or so after you receive bad news. This gives you time to be a bit more contemplative on what you want to share and with whom.

2.  Don't Fight It.  Feel It.

Before you start thinking this is a woo-woo exercise, think again. One of the fastest ways you can get over shock is to feel it. Fight it and it'll linger. Instead, let it roll over you like a bulldozer. You can do this a lot of ways, but my recommendation is this: Write down everything you're feeling and then write down next to it why you're feeling that way. Once you see it all in writing, it's much easier to accept your new reality, let it be, and stop stewing about it.

You'll also probably gain some insight from what you write about the "why" behind your feelings. Sometimes our reactions are about far more than the specific triggering event. The wheel may have been a little wobbly before it fell off entirely. Look for repeated patterns or similar challenges in other areas of your life. The more you understand, the better you can cope, respond, and recover.

3.   Figure Out What Matters Most.

It's natural to want the thing that just happened to un-happen. That's possible only in very rare instances. What's your next best thing? What matters most to you given the current circumstance? If you messed up at work, you can't undo your mistake. But you can immediately think about what you need to do to start your rebound. 

If you're fired or let go, it's highly unlikely you can change that outcome. In that case, what matters most is likely getting as much severance pay as possible to limit your exposure. Or asking for support in how your company talks about your circumstance to protect your reputation. Or requesting that leaders or colleagues open doors to help you find a new opportunity.

If you can't have what you really want - for the situation to reverse itself - what's the next best thing to limit your vulnerability? Get real about that. Once you do, you'll feel far less exposed and more focused on forward momentum. You have nothing to lose by asking respectfully for what will help you better navigate the circumstance. If your employer says no, you're in the same situation, no worse for having asked.

4.  Show Grace.

At some point, you'll have to talk to others to either a) get what you decided you wanted in #3 or b) tell them what happened and potentially ask for their help. With your close friends and family, you don't have to worry too much about what you say or do. They won't judge you the way others may. For everyone else, it's important to show grace. Don't bad-mouth the person or organization that caused your wheels to fall off. (Ever.) Don't play the role of the victim. (Even if you are a victim.) Don't add drama or tell stories or make every conversation for days on end about you and your saga. Wallow in your situation all you want when you're alone (although I don't recommend it), but show grace when talking with others. 

How do you show grace? Share what happened. Explain that you were surprised or disappointed. Acknowledge that these things happen and that you're just looking toward what's next. You'll come across as professional and mature. If you don't make your situation a story, no one else will either. This isn't about being inauthentic - it's about realizing that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and recognizing that you'll move above and beyond it.

5.  Get Productive.

When the wheels fall off, only you can put them back on. If you're still at your job and recovering from a mistake or disappointment, put your head down and deliver some amazing results and soon. People forgive strong performers a lot of mistakes. Show that you can be professional even under duress and just deliver. 

If you've been let go, it's time to put together a plan to get back on your feet. Don't just start randomly trying to make something happen. You need a plan. This includes being thoughtful about your message (why are you looking), updating your resume, updating your online profiles to be as professional and polished as possible, and developing a strategy for outreach to find new opportunities. This step is usually best done with help from a trusted former colleague or a professional coach who specializes in this area. The key either way is to be structured, intentional, and productive. Don't wing it.

You may be tempted to splash around in a pond of negativity for a bit. I've done it. So do that if you really need it, but don't do it too long. It's important to get on with getting on. Re-living or re-hashing events isn't particularly productive once you're over the initial shock or disappointment.

Bottom Line

Your career will be filled with opportunities to learn ~ from both the good and positive events, and challenging situations that spring up along the way. I've learned far more from my mistakes and challenges than my victories. That said, in the exact moment when disaster strikes, the noise of emotion is deafening to any desire to be productive and focus on recovery.

This is where we pick up on the rest of my story about the wheels falling off and my lesson in grace.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I could be crushing it at work from a performance standpoint, and be fired. It was my first hard lesson about moving beyond the "what" of performance to the "how" of performance. My old boss was promoted. My new boss was his long-standing enemy. My loyalties remained with my old boss. We'd worked together for years. I liked him, respected him, and trusted him. 
The new boss was pretty sure he couldn't trust me to have his back and to a degree he was right. I didn't particularly like him or his approach. I should've shown him more active vs. passive support, no question. I could've done a better job of embracing him in the new role. What he didn't realize is that I'd never compromise our results. Should he have fired a top performer? No. Should he have moved me out of his organization and allowed me to transition to another part of the company? Yes. Fair? No. Allowed? Yes. Appropriate? No. Justified? Yes. 
At first, I was stunned. But I learned a great lesson. When you're the boss, you don't want to be exposed. Anyone who creates exposure creates risk for you individually. If you're confident in your leadership, you work to earn trust and turn it around. If you're not, you use power vs. influence to eliminate personal risk. My boss felt exposed having people he didn't know or trust as key members of his leadership team. He went on to fire two more senior leaders before being fired himself a few months later.
No question, he could've chosen any number of productive and professional approaches to address his need to have a trusted team by his side. He chose to make a point instead. I wish he would've made a different choice, but he didn't. In response, I could've chosen to stand on a righteous soapbox about right vs. wrong, but I didn't. 
I was better served by being gracious. (Friends and family aside.) My response to anyone else who asked about what happened was that leaders should have the ability to choose their senior team ~ to hand select people they trust to support their priorities. My boss and I weren't able to establish that trust. It was the truth. No ugliness. No drama.  
The point of sharing my story is this:  Leaders in organizations make decisions based on their unique perspective every day. Often, you can't convince them to do or see things otherwise. Sometimes they make judgments or decisions that aren't fair, that don't make sense, and that feel wrong. Companies try to support their leaders' choices and hold them accountable for results, rather than inspect their choices in detail. That's why sometimes when the wheels fall off, it's hard to understand why others allowed it to happen. 

The best you can do is try to behave with grace if someone forms an opinion of you that isn't complimentary. It may change their mind. And in more extreme circumstances if they make a decision to remove you from their trusted circle of colleagues, your best approach is to recover with grace. In my case, I learned that what felt like a huge upset was really just a speed bump on my road to success. It was one of many defining moments that forced me to grow and become more committed to handling challenges well.

It's a small world and people are always paying attention to your words and actions. That's never more true than when you find yourself in an awkward situation or controversial circumstance. If you can't reasonably undo a bad situation when the wheels fall off, choose to behave gracefully and move beyond it. You'll be surprised how much you learn about what to do differently next time. You'll also be surprised at how much respect you earn from others by showing grace.

Bottom line:  Grace is always a great choice because you never have the possibility of regret.

More soon,

PS:  If this article was helpful or interesting to you, please share it with your family, friends and co-workers. One day they may find themselves facing a challenging situation. This insight may help them respond and recover with grace ~ and end up even better than they started. Click the buttons below to easily share the article with others.