What To Do When You Feel Like A Failure At Work

Start with these small, actionable steps.

Woman with natural hair smiles confidently against yellow background merla / shutterstock.com

Rhonda (not her real name), a senior manager in a large organization, felt her executive leadership was not hearing her. She believed she was “too in the weeds” in her communication and was not “strategically aligned” with her executive audience.

Rhonda wanted to know what to do when you feel like a failure at work.

During our two months together, she wanted to transcend the transactional, shifting her mindset to become a more strategic thinker. Rhonda wished her leaders would see her as being less of a doer and more of a delegator.


The result she hoped for was to ultimately exude more executive presence. But she often felt like a failure at work. 

If you’re honest, like Rhonda, you may also experience times when you feel you don't have what it takes to succeed in your job. You wonder what to do when you feel like you're failing at your job while you have bigger dreams for your future.

You're not alone.

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How to overcome self-doubt when you feel like you're failing at work

In my coaching practice, I work with senior vice-presidents, vice-presidents, directors, doctors, CEOs, lawyers and senior engineers to name a few. The one thing they all have in common is they understand what it’s like, at least some of the time, to feel like a failure at work.


The first thing I tell a client experiencing these feelings is, “you’re not alone.” At one time or another, we all have moments when we feel we’re not up to snuff. Research shows the prevalence of these feelings of self-doubt and fear affects from 9 to 82 percent of the population at least once.

Rhonda was among the high achievers who may suffer from a lack of confidence and occasional thoughts of not measuring up. My clients often conclude it emanates from within. They often admit no or little outside evidence exists to justify their feeling this way. So what do you call this nebulous feeling of self-doubt and shaky confidence?

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Understand what causes your self-doubt

That frightening feeling from within has a powerful effect on how we view ourselves. It’s a temporary or sometimes persistent feeling of self-doubt and a lack of confidence. Some may call it their inner critic but it’s more likely a case of imposter syndrome.


It often is tied to performance around specific events and activities. It could be an important presentation or a job interview. Or, like in Rhonda’s case, it could show up whenever you meet with the C-suite.

Imposter syndrome is the perception that you do not perform as well as your peers. You may even compare yourself to other times in your career when you felt you were doing better. You feel like a phony who doesn’t deserve the success you’ve earned, wondering when you’ll be discovered as the fraud you’ve come to believe you are. It can be maddening, leaving you wondering what to do when you feel like a failure.

RELATED: Do You Have Imposter Syndrome? 5 Triggers That Can Crush Your Confidence

Learn the roots of your imposter syndrome

The roots of imposter syndrome often go deep. Those who suffer from it are high achievers, often with degrees and loads of corporate experience. Accomplishments do little to quell the feelings of inadequacy.
Being recognized for your success, ironically, can foster feelings of imposter syndrome.


Receiving an award, being promoted or being commended for acing an important presentation could all be triggers. One failure after many successes can also stir up feelings of inadequacy and cause you to groundlessly question your competence.

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Make specific plans to improve, and take action on them

When Rhonda decided to work on shifting her mindset from doer to delegator, she felt the best strategy was to enhance her communication skills. She was able to see the importance of isolating things over which she had control.

She had a specific goal of becoming a “calm, clear, concise and collaborative” communicator. Creating, practicing and giving presentations is the perfect playground to get started.


Once the process of mastering this skill has begun, like Rhonda, you can see its benefits in other communications, such as impromptu conversations and written content, such as emails.

Rhonda learned to clarify in advance what she wanted to say. She used shorter sentences and took the time to pause before speaking. She developed the mantra, “calm, concise and collaborative” and meditated on it before meetings and presentations with her leadership.

By employing these simple tactics, it kept her from dragging her listeners through the weedy undergrowth of her thought process. The clarity and succinctness Rhonda sought and found in her presentations, she was able to easily transfer to other personal and written interactions.

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At the end of our short time together, Rhonda described each of the exercises detailed above as a “stroke, like the polish on a diamond.”

Rhonda’s annual review rolled around just before the coaching ended. “I felt assured from my boss that there’s nothing to fix,” she said with a smile. “It feels like a reset, and now I sleep a lot better, knowing I have the confidence.”

Like Rhonda, you’re not alone in wondering what to do when you feel like a failure. It happens to the best of us.


Understanding the feelings associated with imposter syndrome, its prevalence and sharpening your communication skills can get you back on the path of confident career success in short order! With these easily-attained skills, you’ll radiate a strong sense of executive presence throughout your organization.

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Brent Roy, PCC, CPLC, a certified executive, career and personal development coach, works with men and women who want to increase their confidence and boost their executive presence to prepare them for promotion or a new career. More information is available via his website