Living Through Career Downfall? Here's How To Manage Your Way Out


All is not well in the world of work. Waves of organizational downsizing, restructuring, repositioning, often at the whim of few decision-makers, have brought about widespread career downfalls. In these, some people misread the organizational tea leaves and fall out of favor, others get caught out by changing technology, others again do something they later regret, but can’t have the moment back. Whatever their causes, career downfalls are everywhere. How to deal with them?

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International scholars Roxana Barbulescu Jennifer Totsi-Harris and Herminia Ibarra investigated how people deal with career downfalls and found three underlying narratives. They are downward-spiral, unfinished search and various forms of virtue-discovery narratives through which people can talk about and seek to make sense of their experiences.

Downward spiral: In these narratives, the event is seen as a sign of worse things to come. People still talk about experiencing unanticipated layoffs, an industry downturn, or a hostile takeover without showing any readiness to move on. Their persistent complaints about what happened stop them from sharing any wider interpretation of their experiences.

Unfinished search: In these narratives, people’s attempts to move on from the downfall appear ambiguous, or unfinished. They take fresh initiatives, like additional coursework or networking investments, that haven’t yet paid off. For people using downward spiral or unfinished search narratives their core identities as members of the workforce remain damaged, compounding the problem of moving on.

Virtue-discovery narratives: These give the narrator an opportunity to move forward from the downfall, and to do so with a sense of continuity and integrity. They include the following.

Justice and liberation: These narratives reference the injustice of what they had experienced, but also see oneself as liberated from the experience. There is a moral to the story, for example of becoming a more ethical investment banker or finding freedom through entrepreneurship.

Prudence: These narratives describe the learning gained from the downfall and the precautions they would take in the future to avoid any repeat experience. For example, they say they will become better project managers for their employers, having seen close up what could go wrong.

Temperance: These narratives reflect on past excesses and lead toward adopting greater moderation and self-control in the future. The lessons learned are that it’s OK to make less money, work fewer hours, or find a new balance between work and family as a result of what’s been experienced.

Wisdom: These narratives speak about gaining a wider perspective, or greater insights that will inform future work. They can justify, for example, a shift from for-profit to not-for-profit employment, or spending more time with children, or simply having more free time for oneself.

Magnanimity, or Courage: These overlapping narratives lay claim to taking higher ground, perhaps identifying a “calling” to help others, becoming a better listener, or describing a new awareness of their internal fortitude to live through the troubles they had experienced.

Most people experience career downfalls in their lives. Moreover, you can expect them to be more frequent in this time of high employment mobility. However, you can also find virtue in reflecting on those downfalls. Develop a narrative that works for you, and go forward to better days!

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