Getting Over Being Passed Over
"We've decided to go in a different direction."
You can't believe you're hearing those words—or some variation—telling you someone else is getting the big job. This promotion—which seemed all but assured—was supposed to be your reward. You handled those dirty jobs no one would touch. You worked punishing hours; losing touch with friends, forsaking hobbies, and missing precious moments with your family. You bit your tongue and swallowed your pride 1,000 times. Sure, your bosses will say, "we'll make it up to you." But you feel as if you're starting from scratch. They may as well have demoted you.
Shock soon gives way to self-pity. You'll stew in your office, picking apart the new hire's shortcomings. You're torn in so many directions. You're grateful to have a job, yet feel so used and cheated. You don't want to be seen as a troublemaker, but you want to tell them they've made a mistake. Worst of all, you know this is going to hurt for a while.
You're disappointed, angry, even humiliated. But what do you do now (other than make sure you don't compose that resignation letter or angry e-mail)? Consider these strategies:
You've spent years building your résumé and burnishing your qualifications, only to learn you're not quite good enough. Give yourself a few days to calm down (at least on the surface). Then, sit down with your bosses and ask them to identify areas where you can improve, so you're ready for next time.
Be prepared: If your bosses have guts, their answers may be hard on your ego. They may say you're not ready or not what they need now. Maybe you politicked too hard for the promotion. Maybe you never learned to play the game…or you got on someone's bad side. Your body language, appearance, verbal delivery, technical knowledge, or people skills may need polish. Plus, your contributions may not have been visible or important enough to leave a mark.
Bottom line: You're probably not as good as you think. What you see and what they see may be totally different. In their view, you may project the wrong image or haven't paid your dues yet. Good or bad, listen to them and take their observations to heart. Don't blame or take cheap shots (no matter how deserving). They're doing you a favor by sharing their thinking. It can only help you later.
And what about those bosses who aren't willing to provide feedback? They may be afraid of hurting your feelings or setting themselves up for a lawsuit. You obviously don't want to risk your job in this economy by pressing them for answers. When you're stonewalled, consider talking discreetly to those within your superiors' orbit for guidance (or closure). Otherwise, just sit back and patiently wait; over time, the new hire will reveal the qualities and direction your bosses were seeking.
Create a Growth Plan
Are you stuck because you're working hard when you should be working smart? Maybe you're missing the forest for the trees—focusing on job-oriented tasks rather than career-centered goals. Don't neglect the basics: networking, building your skills, and gaining those experiences critical to advancement. Over time, talent, temperament, and connections should win out. Work on developing yourself in those areas.
Look At Your Career Differently
The business world is replete with talented professionals who didn't quite make it. They ended up changing careers, launching companies, burning out, or finding religion. Some found peace, direction, and meaning; others grew embittered or deluded. And some just stuck around, despite being found wanting time and time again.
The choice is yours. You can quit and start over, forgoing all the years, relationships, sweat equity, and supposed security. You can stay in place, too—and slowly suffocate. Or, you examine the undercurrents driving you. That may require you to talk to someone, such as a career coach. You can meet with the lifers, to understand why they stayed put. Sit down with those who took that leap of faith—the ones who deserted their comfortable jobs and pursued their passions—to learn if it was really worth it. Either way, you'll eventually need to choose a path. Make sure you select it for the right reasons, without reservation or impulsiveness.
Stand Behind the New Hire
This person may hold different values and strengths. He or she may be (gasp) younger or less experienced than you. And your peers are probably looking to you on how to act. That means you must be supportive, regardless of your sentiments, for the greater good.
The new hire will have a steep learning curve. Empathize with how difficult the transition will be and make it as easy as possible. Start by opening doors for him or her or sharing your institutional knowledge and experience. Keep an open mind and listen: You might learn something. Execute the new person's vision: It might be truly special. And find that common bond: You may end up friends—or at least trusted colleagues.
Look Beyond Your Company
There's a time in any job when you've gone as far as you'll be able to. After a while, the higher-ups won't invest in you or give you the opportunities, grooming, and support. If you can't break through, think about going around. Start by increasing your exposure outside your organization, such as leading a community initiative, consulting, speaking, or writing a column.
At the same time, reflect and reevaluate. Ask yourself those terrifying questions: What do you feel good about in your career? What else in your life—family, friends, interests, lifestyle, perhaps spirituality—compensate for being passed over? Are these benefits more important than the big title, salary, and ego boost? Weigh the pros and cons of making a life change. Recognize how it'll forever alter your life—and the lives of those who love you.
If you're determined to make a change, then do it. You'll get a clean slate, free from history, baggage, or labels. The next boss may give you the shot your employer won't, along with more training, benefits, and personal attention. By moving on, you can blossom outside your company's shadow. There's nothing more motivating or satisfying than succeeding when others thought you wouldn't.
It might be tempting to slack off and make excuses. Don't. It's what some people will expect from you right now. Just because they didn't see your value, the rules haven't changed. You'll still need to go above and beyond, taking the high road and being professional and worthy of respect at all times. Life is full of disappointments—and this is one of them. Suck it up whenever you feel like quitting or lashing out. You'll regret it otherwise. Another opportunity will eventually come around. Being passed over just gives you the self-awareness, hunger, and humility to capitalize when it does.