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A resilience expert explains how to pick yourself up after a setback at work

Suffering a career setback can be hard, but with the right tools and attitude you can emerge on the other side even stronger than before.

Melbourne Business School Professor Jill Klein

"The key to being more resilient lies in how you appraise a difficult situation," says Professor Jill Klein, who runs the Resilient Leadership program at Melbourne Business School.

"Appraisal has three components – why did it happen, what does it mean and what can I do? How you answer these questions can affect how you view a difficult situation," she says.

Why did it happen?

An example of a difficult situation is when you didn’t get the promotion you wanted – and how you respond to that, how you make attributions to it, is what can put you in a negative state of mind.

"When a situation like that comes along, you might blame your boss, the organisation or even yourself, which are obviously unhealthy attributions.

“A healthier approach is to take responsibility for the aspects of the situation that you can control and try to find opportunities for growth and learning through this setback," says Professor Klein.

"The first step in taking responsibility for a setback is to ask yourself: 'If I had a chance to start this process over again, what would I do differently?'

"By answering this, you gain an understanding of the parts you have control over and the parts you do not. Then you can address the controllable aspects so you're better prepared for the next time this situation occurs.

“For example, you may realise that you have a weakness in managing client expectations, and then look for avenues to improve that ability."

What does it mean?

The second side to handling a difficult situation with resilience is to consider its meaning. Do you consider it to be a threat or challenge?

"What determines the meaning of a situation to you has to do with what you think your resources are relative to the demands of the situation," Professor Klein says.

"If the demands of the situation are greater than your sense of resources, you will feel threatened. If you think your resources match or outpace the demands of the situation, you'll see it more as a challenge."

The first step to turning a difficult situation into a challenge starts with looking at what resources you have available.

"You can concretely increase your resources, such as adding people to staff or obtaining funding for an initiative, but you can also approach it psychologically. If you focus on your strengths and experiences that could help you deal with the difficult situation, you can affect the resource-demand balance,” she says.

The next step is to break down the demands of the situation into manageable pieces.

“If you’re dealing with an adversity at work—such as a large-scale reorganisation—and you know that it will take months to resolve, take it one step at a time by asking yourself ‘what do I need to happen by the end of today or this week?’”

“Breaking down the demands of a difficult situation shrinks them, and they become an achievable challenge rather than an overwhelming threat.”

What can I do?

The final stage of building resilience to overcome setbacks is deciding what to do next, which boils down to two possible coping strategies: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.

"Problem-focused coping is about generating different solutions to solve the problem, thinking flexibly in order to generate a variety of options" Professor Klein says.

"Emotion-focused coping is about keeping yourself in one piece to handle adversity around you, which can include doing exercise, socialising, getting social support, experiencing positive emotion, laughing with others, and so on.

"I had to employ both strategies when I went to visit my parents recently, who are not very well. There was a lot of problem-focused coping around working out how to get them the best medical care and access to the things that they needed.

"There was also emotional coping. I always thought that I was lucky to have healthy parents, but then it all happened at once, and I needed ways to cope emotionally.

"I worked out fun things we could do together – TV shows that would make them laugh and foods they love to eat. For me personally, I played sports with friends, which helped me reduce a lot of the stress I was having at that time."

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