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How to keep your cool after not getting a promotion

August 19, 2015, 5:47 PM UTC
Distresssed Man
Photograph by Kelly Sillaste — Getty Images/Flickr RF

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: When you get passed up on a promotion, what’s the next step? is written by William Craig, founder and president of WebpageFX.

The phrase ‘life is like a ladder’ is something we’re all used to hearing, and it often brings to mind images of determined folks stepping on each other’s hands in a mad scramble to the top.

The truth is that we all have our own ladders, and we all make progress at our own pace. Our success must be measured against our own accomplishments — no one else’s.

This cuts to the heart of why being refused a promotion can be so disappointing. If we’re trying to out-climb ourselves, then it’s hard not to feel as though we’ve committed a very personal failure when that promotion goes to someone else.

But turning that experience into something instructive means knowing how to conduct yourself after disappointment. Here are four pieces of advice that have served me well:

Remember that life is full of setbacks
Let’s get this useful cliché out of the way. Life is indeed full of disappointment — a fact most of us are intimately familiar with by the time we reach adulthood. Knowing this is how we learn to move on from failed relationships, and it’s how we can rise above a failed bid for a promotion.

Failure is a part of life (see: I told you this would be clichéd), but this little piece of folksy wisdom will come in handy more often than you think. It’ll be tempting to feel sorry for yourself if that corner office goes to somebody else, but keeping things in perspective is hugely important if you want to stay focused for the road ahead.

And that begins when you…

Ask how you can improve in the future
It’s tough to tell sometimes, but humans, by and large, are rational beings. You don’t make important decisions lightly, and neither do the people you work for.

In some cases, your employer may even have an explicit set of criteria laid out to help determine who’s rising to the occasion and who’s not. If they value transparency, they should have no qualms about sharing these criterion with the curious.

I’ll make it even simpler: Just come right out and ask your boss why you didn’t make the cut. See if he or she can help you put together a set of actionable, plainly stated objectives to help you reach that milestone the next time around.

Remember not to burn any bridges
I think the single most important thing to remember after you’ve been passed over for a promotion is to keep every door open that you possibly can. It’s not always possible to improve your situation right away, which makes it much more likely that you’ll make things worse by taking rash action.

You’re going to be tempted to lash out, get discouraged, or look at other job opportunities across town. I’m going to recommend caution. Sleep on it. Ask for advice from friends and loved ones. When you wake up tomorrow, you want to have every option on the table that you have today. And in some cases, that includes the worst-case scenario: letting go of your current job.

See also: The worst thing you can do after getting passed up on a promotion

Know when to move on
Although we’ve talked a lot about turning failure into success and making lemonade out of life’s plentiful stock of lemons, there may come a time when you’ve simply exhausted your other options. If you sense that’s going to be the case, or your employer hasn’t shown much interest in helping you prepare for the next promotion opportunity, or you have the sinking feeling that you’ve risen as far as you can go, it might be time to think about making a change.

Still, stay on good terms with your boss and the people in the office, even as you start mining your network of contacts for leads that might offer a better chance for advancement.

In other words, you sometimes reach the top of the ladder you’re on and need to look for a taller one. Changing jobs or careers is not a badge of failure, and it’s not something to dread. It’s the closing of one door and the opening of another.

Read all responses to the Leadership Insider question: When you get passed up on a promotion, what’s the next step?

Does a missed promotion mean it’s time to quit your job? by Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify.

How to get over a promotion you thought you deserved by Shadan Deleveaux, director of sales multicultural beauty division at L’Oréal USA.

How to move on after getting passed up for a promotionby David Reimer, CEO of Merryck.

You just got passed over for a promotion. Here’s what you do next by Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder and CEO of VaynerMedia.