Had a Tough Year? Make Peace and Move On

Harvard Business Review

June 30, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

This week’s question for Ask the Coach:

My bank has lost billions of dollars because of bad investments – which I didn’t make. Now I am facing budget cutbacks, getting no bonus, reducing my staff, and being expected to contribute more. This really makes me angry! Any suggestions?

If it is true that “misery loves company,” you have a lot of company. In my work in the financial services world this year, I hear your frustration – and your question – over and over again.

In one bank that I know well almost every part of the business had a great year – except the division that lost billions of dollars and negated all of the other divisions’ success. This made life very tough for the employees in the successful divisions.

One of the most common characteristics of successful people is that we have a very strong “internal locus of control.” In other words, we believe that our success in life is a function of the motivation and ability that we bring to the world. Less successful people tend to see success as a function of external factors – or the environment.
Normally this belief in our control over our own destiny works in our favor. It makes us motivated and encourages us to build our skills. It helps us take responsibility. (It also keeps us from wasting money on lottery tickets!)

When negative environmental factors impact our success, our strong internal locus of control makes it hard for us to accept the reality of the external environment. We begin to get angry because “It isn’t fair,” and we ask questions like, “Why am I being punished – for their mistakes?”

I cannot help your company get back the billions of dollars it just lost. I cannot help you get a bonus or save your valued staff members. I will try to help you make the best of the situation that you face. My suggestions are:

– If you choose to stay with the company, realize that we all make mistakes. The individuals who made bad decisions – or their bosses – are just humans. They aren’t Gods. Historically, these people have made some very good bets. Recently they made some very bad bets. You don’t have to love them, but just accept them for being who they are. Carrying around anger directed toward your fellow employees does not help you, your company or the people who work with you.

– Forgive yourself. You are an adult. You chose to work with this company. In a way, you made a bet. Sometimes our choices don’t work out as we had planned. This does not make you a bad person – just a human being. At a deeper level, the person you are really mad at may be yourself. Don’t be personally ashamed because your company has lost money. While you can own your own performance, you can’t own the performance of people that you do not control.

– Reassess the situation. One of greatest challenges for investors is to learn the meaning of “sunk cost.” What’s done is done. Let it go. Objectively reconsider your situation. Given the world that exists today, do you want to stay? If so, make the best of where you are. Do you want to leave? If so, begin searching for another job.

– Remember your deeper mission in life. Behave in a way that optimizes benefit for yourself and the people that you love. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face by letting your anger override your logic. I have seen many otherwise smart people make stupid decisions when they were angry. Don’t let this happen to you.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful.

I love hearing from our readers. Please send in comments with your suggestions for how good professionals can make the best of today’s tough conditions.