How Leaders Manage Disappointment at Work

December 31, 2022 •
Uncategorized •
Views: 178

Disappointment at work is inevitable. You’ve felt it. So have I. For example, you didn’t get that promotion you worked hard for and deserved. Or your suggestion was voted down or simply ignored (that hurt). Or maybe someone failed to follow through (why do they always do that?). Your boss let you down…again (who promoted him anyway)? Maybe you are hit with an unreasonable and ridiculous complaint. Or maybe it was something less life-altering, but nevertheless annoying – like they changed the coffee vendor in the cafeteria! Disappointments abound. If I asked you to share with me a recent disappointment at work…how long would it take you to think of one? My guess? Not long!

We have all been there. Sometimes workplace disappointments feel like a punch in the gut. Responses to such frustrations differ from person to person. For some, our knee-jerk reaction is to throw in the towel, call a recruiter, and start to look elsewhere for work. Others might be tempted to even less constructive reactions like withdrawing from ordinary communication with others, or resorting to rude behaviors or bitter attitudes. Some simply “check-out” mentally and emotionally from their career. Some might even try to escape the frustration of disappointment through excessive alcohol consumption or drug use. Worst of all, there is anger and sometimes even violence. But these responses only hurt ourselves in the long run.

I have spent most of my 30 professional years working for large companies, some of the very largest in the world in fact. But whether your organization is large or small, new or old, hierarchical or flat…we all get disappointed from time to time by the decisions that are made by our boss or “the powers that be.” But how we respond to disappointments is what distinguishes leaders from everyone else. Leaders take control of the way they respond. In fact, it is often in the face of significant disappointment that someone’s real capacity for leadership shines forth.

So, how do real leaders deal with the disappointments they encounter at work? Let me share with you 3 things that I have noticed over the years that characterize the ways that real leaders respond to disappointments at work. By “leaders” I’m not talking about those at the very top of an organization. I mean those individuals who are primarily in the “middle” or even “front line” working staff that demonstrate leadership in the way they handle themselves and the situations of life.


First, note that wise leaders do not react quickly or rashly. They slow down. When greatly disappointed by something or someone, leaders try to give the dust some time to settle before making any significant decisions. Leaders understand that people, and companies, often make mistakes. Sometimes it just takes an organization a little time to recognize a bad move. Once discovered, they may reverse direction or change their mind. Leaders can hit, as it were, the “pause button” on their own response. As Molliere the French Playwright put it, “Unreasonable haste is the direct road to error.” Leaders slow down.


Second, real leaders try, as best as possible, to put the disappointing decision in the best possible light. They have a generous spirit with respect to the motives behind any decision, particularly bad decisions. Leaders understand that maybe there were other factors at play; factors we may not be aware of. Real leaders can do this because, at the heart of a real leader, is typically a very humble man or woman. They don’t go about life with an “I always know best” type of attitude. And even when they are right, they are very reluctant to say “I told you so.” Leaders cut others some slack. I love the way that Alfred, Lord Tennyson said it, “Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt.” Leaders do that. Leaders are generous in their assessment of others and the decisions they make.


Finally, leaders express their disappointment with self-control. A real leaders knows that there is nothing wrong with disagreeing per se. It is more about HOW they disagree that makes the difference. Leaders keep their cool. They do not moan or complain. They retain the power to choose their own response in any situation, particularly when they are disappointed with things. A real leader has the capacity to laugh at herself, and their situation, because external events do not change who they are inside. Real leaders do not blame their circumstances for their behavior. Yes, they have values, convictions, passion, and courage – but they don’t pout and whine when things don’t go their way. I think William Penn sums it up well when saying “No man is fit to command another that cannot command himself.


That brings my brief thoughts to a close. We have by no means exhausted the important subject of workplace disappointments. We have, in fact, hardly scratched the surface. But I hope these few words will help guide some of your own thoughts and reactions on how you respond to disappointment at work.