How To Make Professional Failure Work To Your Advantage

Turn perceived failure into opportunity.

How Feeling Like A Failure At Work Can Actually Lead To Professional Success getty

Failure at work seems so final, but actually, it can be a key to growth and eventual success, whatever your situation. By understanding what failure is all about for you, you’ll be able to turn it around and become ready to profit from the experience.

To clarify your choices, first name the circumstances of your failure. Maybe you missed out on an exciting opportunity or didn't get the promotion or new job you wanted.


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The good news is missing out on a promotion, not getting hired for the job you want, or feeling like a failure at work can improve resilience and insight. 

What do your emotions tell you about your priorities and willingness to prepare for the future you want? Once you understand your perceived failure better, you can make conscious choices about specific actions to improve your situation. 


With those investments in yourself, your outcomes will support success the next time you create or see opportunities.

To do this, begin by being honest and kind with yourself. Be alert to situations beyond your control that contribute to your sense of failure. Examples are work norms that intimidate, such as a lack of openness and trust, as well as competition from others.

And consider that perhaps what happened had nothing to do with you.

Since you may not be able to influence or change certain aspects of your work or the hiring and promotion practices of an employer, a more practical, accessible place is to start is with yourself — where your initial power lies


How strong are your soft skills, such as conflict resolution, communication, empathy, and adaptability? What aspects of your interpersonal relationships at work and for professional relationship building do you want to improve?

Being aware of your style and skills in interpersonal interactions is useful for avoiding and correcting mistakes and misunderstandings. Given today's increasingly complex, uncertain, and ambiguous workplace situations, what leads to promotions and new work today often requires refreshed, or even different approaches.

Correcting what feels like failure at work takes attention and patience.

In your current situation, knowing how to be more effective is a process of development, not a magic act. To do this, take reasonable risks to check out your ideas, plans, and actions in advance.


That helps you avoid misunderstandings in relationships and mistakes in projects as well as do problem solving. In the process, the very communication and conversation can strengthen trust and relationships, not to mention creativity.

As possible, practicing graceful giving and receiving honest, timely feedback contributes to these processes. Rather than presenting something as a finished product, discuss interim steps, asking open-ended questions, such as, “What do you think of this?"

When you don't get the promotion you want, here are at least three important aspects to consider: your expectations, the promotion patterns where you work, and the resources available. Another aspect is the understanding you have with the powers that be, sometimes called a psychological contract.

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To make progress with these three choices:

  • Ask yourself if your expectations are realistic. Check them out with people you respect. While you’re at it, do some homework about your organization’s resources.
  • Clarify your understanding of timing and criteria for promotions.
  • Keep developing a psychological contract with the people who make promotion decisions by clarifying and addressing their expectations and criteria for judging your work.

In addition, identify what is holding you back from seeking and taking advantage of opportunities. Could it be lack of confidence, need for training and education, unwillingness to deal with the tradeoffs of greater responsibility?

Once you name what the barriers are, you’ll have a roadmap for moving forward and addressing them.

Take on complex matters that may also get in your way.


At work, there are many variables you’ve likely noticed already. They include other people’s behavior and actions, unrealistic aims and expectations of yourself and individuals who have influence, and lack of patience with the nitty-gritty of complex processes involved with getting work done.

Once you identify which issues need addressing, choose one action you can take now to encourage a better outcome now or in the future.

And about that job you didn’t get (this time!), here are some contributing factors for you to explore:

  • Assumptions about how well your experience and education match requirements
  • Your behaviors and actions before, during, and after the vetting process
  • Misunderstanding by prospective employer of exactly what you can offer
  • Fits in style and timing of connection and follow up
  • Differing values

Figure out which factors apply to your experience in seeking new work to identify opportunities for doubling back for a second try or for avoiding repetition of mistakes and misunderstandings in the future.

I regret that failure is likely part of most worthwhile, complex activities or matters.  By clarifying what is involved, you’ll have choices for doing much better now and avoiding it in the future.

Being honest with yourself, appreciating your own powers, and getting [good] useful feedback are key to future success. In the process, just be kind to yourself and keep your sense of humor vibrant, while doing due diligence for improved outcomes and opportunities.

RELATED: How To Handle Rejection Like A Boss (& Not Get Stuck In A Shame-Spiral)


Ruth Schimel, PhD is a career and life management consultant and author of Choose Courage: Step Into the Life You Want, who writes widely about personal and professional development. Ruth consults with individual and organizational clients in the Washington, DC area and beyond by phone and email, encouraging them to access their own courage, strengths, and uniqueness as they prepare for the future of work — the topic of her seventh book, available winter 2018.  

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