By Andrea Redmond and Patricia Crisafulli
When setbacks happen, vulnerability often follows. Feeling unprotected and exposed, we don’t want people to know what we’re facing, whether it’s a professional upset such as the loss of a job, loss of a great sales account, or being passed over for promotion, or something more personal.
The more upsetting the circumstances, the more we may fear what other people think and say about us. Not only are we concerned about the opinions of our friends and work associates, we can become preoccupied with what “they” think—the people beyond our scope of influence.
For people who tend to be more relationship-oriented by nature, the effects may be even more difficult to deal with. Suddenly, despite your accomplishments and professional standing, everyone’s opinion matters.
We become so preoccupied by other people that we invest too much precious time and energy trying to manage opinions and perceptions and not focusing on how we can effectively deal with the problem at hand.
What “They” Think
Our concerns over what other people are saying and thinking can take away from our own ability to cope with what is happening in the moment. With all our focus “out there,” we may rob ourselves of the physical and emotional energy we need to support ourselves and move on from the setback.
We may even be so focused on people outside our circle of intimates that we pay too little attention to the help being offered by those who are closest to us. The tape that plays in our head, our self-talk, can drown out the little voice in the background that may be saying, “Take care of yourself right now; be kind to yourself.”
In other words, we have to decide who really matters.
When facing an upheaval in any area of your life, a good way to move above, beyond, and through it is by drawing a “line in the sand.” The people you know and care about are on one side; they are the ones whose opinions really matter to you.
It is their support that you rely on to endure the difficulties and begin a comeback. On the other side of the line are those whom you do not know or who don’t know the real you, and whose opinions, therefore, do not matter. Trying to influence them or manage their perceptions is futile.
Drawing A Line in the Sand
This is brought home in the story of highly successful leader Patricia Dunn, who had been CEO of Barclays Global Investors, one of the leading investment firms in the world, and a member of the board of directors of computer giant Hewlett-Packard.
In the midst of a management transition at Hewlett-Packard, Dunn was asked to become chairman of the board of directors.
When an internal investigation at HP into leaks of confidential information went awry, Dunn suddenly came under fire. Although she was not in charge of the investigation, she was among those indicted on four felony counts related to alleged corporate espionage.
A Double Threat
At the same time, Dunn was also dealing with ovarian cancer, undergoing surgery and treatment. But she cared about her reputation and her legacy.
Although the double threat that confronted her might seem beyond any one person’s capability, Dunn approached these challenges with her typical grace, intelligence, and self-awareness.
“I really had only so many first-place enemies to be fighting,” she says. Choosing her battles literally, Dunn made her priority cancer treatment to achieve a state of remission.
In the meantime, to deal with a barrage of assaults on her character and reputation, particularly in the press, Dunn had to find a way to deal with the emotional pain and duress. For her, the key was separating in her mind those who were among her supporters and whose opinions matter the most and those who were outside that circle.
As she explains, “I had to make a cosmic distinction between those I knew and didn’t know, and those whose opinions matter to me and those I could never know and therefore what they thought was less important.” By making that separation in her mind, Dunn was able to remain grounded through incredibly difficult times.
In the end, Dunn was completely exonerated when charges against her were dropped. In September 2006, she was inducted into the Bay Area Council’s prestigious Hall of Fame, a high honor and a rare achievement for a woman at the time. Today, she is provides energy and leadership to a variety of philanthropic endeavors.
Dunn’s example provides lessons that can help guide us when we, too, face upsets and upheavals. Instead of worrying what everyone is thinking or saying, we stay in the realm of what is real and relevant to our lives.
Staying Real and Relevant
As you face your own upheavals and setbacks in the workplace or outside of work, consider these tips:
- Don’t focus on what “they” think. Spending your time worrying about people whom you don’t know wastes your energy. The only ones who matter are those with whom you have a connection or relationship. Their opinions are the only ones that really count.
- Surround yourself with allies. Friends, family members, and other positive supporters are crucial when you face an upset. Allow them to help you with encouragement, suggestions, or other assistance.
- Stay positive. You will get through this difficulty. Reach out to others whom you know who may have had similar experiences for advice on how they made it through the tough times. Listen to the little voice in your head that is nurturing and supporting, not doubting and critical. Realistically, a good life is not the same thing as an easy life, so be grateful to those who are there for you.
- Pay if forward. Having gone through a setback will make you more empathic and supportive of others. When someone in your circle faces an upset, be a positive support for that person. Get the focus, attention, and intensity off your own problems and move forward, on to helping others.
Enduring a setback in your personal or professional life can be overwhelming. You do not need to compound the problem by focusing on what “they” think. The only ones who count are those who are closest to you and whose opinions matter. Chances are they are already on your side.
Andrea Redmond and Patricia Crisafulli are the authors of Comebacks: Powerful Lessons from Leaders who Suffered Setbacks and Recaptured Success on Their Terms (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Read more about them at www.AndreaRedmond.com and www.PatriciaCrisafulli.com. The story of Patricia Dunn was directly related to the authors during research for their book.