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What to Do When You Don’t Win at Work

Topics: Career Advice

If you like watching award shows, you know they’re about more than acceptance speeches and upsets, or even red-carpet fashion. While we love to see our favorites win an Emmy or an Oscar, it’s also oddly satisfying to see how the non-winners conduct themselves – and not (entirely) because of schadenfreude.

win at work
Image Credit: hans s/Flickr

After all, on a long enough timeline, we’re all going to be non-winners at some point in our career. The way you conduct yourself when you discover that you’re in the “it’s an honor just to be nominated” camp says a lot about who you are, professionally.

When the promotion goes to someone else, when your pet project loses funding and shuts down, when layoffs come and your name is on the list, you’ll need a lot more grace under pressure than you would if you were accepting an award.


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  1. Do anything while you’re upset.

Sooner or later (probably sooner), you’ll be called upon to be gracious and congratulate the winner. The good news for you is that unless you really were in the running for an Emmy, and there’s a camera trained on your face at the moment of your disappointment, you can probably steal a minute or two to get yourself together. Do so. There’s no reason to make things harder on yourself than they have to be, and your congratulations will mean as much in a few hours, when the shock has worn off.

Also, remember that now is a bad time to talk to your boss about where your career is going. You might well need to have that conversation in the future, but you don’t need to do it today. Give yourself some time to adjust.

  1. Spend a lot of time on social media.

Social media gives us a lot of wonderful things, from inexpensive personal branding opportunities to job leads to industry news. However, most social networks are a bad place to hang out the day you’ve had a professional disappointment.

Sure, you’re probably not going to see your name as a rising hashtag and read everyone’s opinions about you, but your filter might also be somewhat less effective than usual. You’re already having a tough day. Don’t make it worse by getting into a fight about politics with your elderly aunt or next-door neighbor.

  1. Start believing your own press.

When a celebrity makes a comeback, everyone is shocked – as if all the things we loved about that artist ceased to be when fashions changed or personal problems intervened. But the fact is, talent is talent, no matter how people are reacting to it. Just because you’re not accepting an award at the moment doesn’t mean you never will. It doesn’t even mean that you’re less worthy than the most recent winner. Don’t give other people’s opinions more value than they’re worth.


  1. Be gracious to the winner.

The coworker who got the promotion you wanted might someday be your boss, or direct report, or be in a position to give you a much better job at an entirely new employer. No matter what happens, it pays to be gracious in defeat.

You don’t even have to be that convincing: humans remember negative events more than positive ones, and hold on to bad impressions more than good. If you can get out of this interaction without flipping over a table, Real Housewives-style, or otherwise having a tantrum, people won’t wince when they see your name on a resume later.

  1. Keep it in perspective.

Into every career, a little rain must fall, and now it’s your time to put on a raincoat. Give yourself time to mourn and move on. Don’t make today’s setback into the story of your whole career.

  1. Start planning your next phase.

The good news about not winning the prize today is that you can start planning for tomorrow, without the pressure of expectations. Think about where you want to go next. Maybe it’s a new role at your present employer or a new job at a new company. Either way, it’s time to prepare. Think about the skills you’ll need to move to the next level, and the salary you hope to earn when you get the offer. Tomorrow could be the start of your comeback story.

Tell Us What You Think

What would you add to this list? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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