What We Learn When the Humiliating Happens At Work

There will come a time when you will do, or say something embarrassing, at work. If it hasn’t happened already, it will. It has been almost fifteen years since my particular…experience.


Before you read on I should warn you, it really was rather humiliating. I hope that you never do this specific thing, but I’m sharing it because I want you to be able to learn from the experience.


What happened? I had ‘an accident’ in the passenger seat returning from a working lunch with a colleague. You’ll now have questions. I’ve anticipated them with answers:


YES, there is no card for that particular anniversary. Although I’d be delighted if you’d craft one that was homemade. I won’t give you exact dates. NO, I’ve not done it again, since then.

YES, not having done so since isn’t really a CV worthy accomplishment. Although I’m proud!

NO, I won’t share further details. I mulled quite carefully how to write this piece in the first place without losing a third of my followers.


In a weird way it made for a strangely positive difference in that professional relationship. I’m not advocating that you follow in my footsteps to forge strong relationships with colleagues, but it is an opportunity to learn quite a bit about your colleagues. 


This simple truth is that we all blunder at work.


I hope that your error percentage is low and that the failures which emerge do so in less pivotal scenarios, but they occur at these key moments too. Some of our strongest relationships emerge from what happens during and after these occasions. 


Consider the following as how you might appraise your colleagues’ behavior when they have shown up during the worst of yours.


What You Learn During the Moment of Struggle


As an ‘experienced’ professional I can’t help but recall all too clearly well-researched projects that were abysmal failures. Often these were ideas that were launched to engage people in a variety of ways or generate revenue. Surveys and conversations led us to believe that a specific response was set to happen and then post launch…crickets.


Some of your colleagues in the midst of the worst happening remove themselves completely from being connected to the work, look to turn the page immediately, avert their eyes and lay blame. This may be your peers and/or bosses.


Others, show up in a mode to help you problem-solve. They might have innovative ways to help you realize some of the benefits you wanted or notice a new benefit or learning that made the endeavor useful. They might well know how much professional capital you’ve placed on the project and attempt to bolster this newfound value to your colleagues. Or, maybe they speak up at a meeting or speak/write to you personally about how we’ve all had this experience. Ideally, if the person is your boss they come up with a way forward and affirm your effort and share something along the lines of their belief in your approach or the research that led to this decision.



What You Learn After the Struggle


When you listen to successful artists or entrepreneurs they will often wax rhapsodically about their bumpy path to success and the folks who stood by their side when they had no money, no fans and were struggling to find their initial voice or product. We all need these people who “knew us when” and stood by our side when times were tough. Let me emphasize that part about times being tough.


Given the kind of work I do and the places I show up I am always having conversations with people who are struggling to launch a venture or locate a job. Once they have realized their goal people tend to show up, before then, much less so.


Once you’ve suffered through your situation do you see people viewing you or treating you as though you are tainted and/or jettisoning you? Or, do they continue to respond to your calls and emails? It is great if they respond to your requests for help, but better still if they initiate the ask of how they can help you. We are often at our lowest after the bad thing has happened and may feel unworthy of asking others for support.


Of particular importance at these moments might be your boss, internal workplace champions and even mentors. In most respects the mark of a good boss is how they show up when you fail or are struggling. It doesn’t take much to hop a ride leading to direct success. It is the round-about paths that are both more common and require skill and test the character of those around you. It’s the proof that they are invested in you long-term vs shuttling you off when there are any signs of trouble.


Relationships that are built on continual success haven’t been tested.  


When you think about some of your best work relationships remember that the trust isn’t only built when you or they do exceptional work, but how they react when you struggle. 


I also want you to be mindful as well about how you treat others during those (occasional) worst days too. It can set the foundation for those who will be our closest colleagues and champions throughout our career. 

Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.

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