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HR and labor management September 23, 2021

Career shocks: How to spot them, how to survive them

Whie male in a business suit with a shocked expression on face looking at tablet.
You’ve worked hard on a project for years, all for the sake of your career. But sudden market upheaval cancels the project and dashes your hopes for a promotion. What do you do now?

Career paths are becoming increasingly turbulent, with unexpected events beyond a manager’s control exercising influence on their plans, expectations, and sense of self. Academics have labelled such events “career shocks.” A corporate transformation that wipes out a whole layer of executives, sudden geopolitical turmoil leading to cancellation of career-advancing projects, or the quirky personnel decision of a business owner, for example, can axe short- or medium-term career strategies.

Career shocks are not only about derailing from the expected path. So-called “positive” career shocks are also unexpected. These externally caused events create what an outside observer might believe is a progressive career outcome. Take, for example, an unexpected and stellar promotion that bypasses a few rungs on the corporate ladder … triggered by the dismissal of former job incumbents caught in a financial scandal. While a positive development for the newly advanced executive, the unexpectedness factor may affect not only their career but also other life trajectories and expectations, and, consequently, lead to internal conflicts and doubts about the choices ahead.

Most managers attribute their professional success to their competencies and hard work. Both types of career shocks, positive and negative, expose the manager’s self-efficacy, or the belief in their ability to succeed in tasks and live up to self- or externally imposed, but internalized, expectations. While caused by external forces and not necessarily related to individual competencies and efforts, such sudden career developments can significantly undermine the subjective well-being of managers.

We normally expect executives to be able to cope well with externally generated threats or opportunities for their organizations. How can they achieve the same with their personally experienced career shocks?

Identify the effects of the shock. The experience of a negative career shock raises doubts about the realistic assessment of their career capital and the relevance of their competencies for future employment. Some individuals – particularly those prone to experience an impostor syndrome – feel “discovered” and, at least in the short term, get paralyzed by the fear to prove their worth to potential new employers or to seek out new projects. At another extreme, a manager experiencing a shock may develop fantasies about getting revenge on its source, wasting their energy and potentially exposing themselves further in the eyes of the professional community.

Those experiencing a positive shock may get excited about the career chance, but fear a lack of preparedness for the new tasks and levels of responsibility. They may also find it difficult to reconcile previously formed life plans with the emerging work changes. A positive career shock in the form of an unexpected expatriation to an exciting new foreign market, for example, may require difficult negotiations with one’s life partner about current and future priorities and mutual career and life plans. In a case of unexpectedly early rise to the helm of a family firm, the excitement of the career ascension may be clouded by the circumstances leading to it, such as the ailment or death of the family member who was previously heading the company. The earlier-than-expected progression may lead to fears about missing the necessary preparation for the responsibilities ahead. The self-efficacy question in case of a positive career shock goes beyond one’s ability to cope with the professional tasks, and challenges the affected executive with questions about their ability to manage the relationships with significant others and maintain a positive view about themselves as a whole person, not just as a business executive.

Seek out support. A career shock makes people vulnerable and makes their deeper concerns salient. As noted above, paralyzing thoughts or destructive urges may take over the executive’s more productive responses. Executive coaches frequently work with requests for support in navigating the aftermath of a career shock. If the situation is acute, the coach (or anyone taking the helper role) is simply available for the safe expression and exploration of the emotions experienced in conjunction with the shock event. A professional or peer coach, an executive search consultant, or a former business school classmate can be a source of good support for emotional exploration.

Regain control. Cognitive reappraisal of the situation – in which the external nature of the shock is recognized and accepted – is often the next step of the process. In a nutshell, working with the negative career shock boils down to helping an executive move from the “Why me?” question to “How should I move on with my career?” In the case of a positive career shock, the coaching work is about the question “What does this career opportunity really mean for my life?” Regardless of the type of the shock, the executive needs to move to a position of agency, where they are no longer a victim of circumstances but rather a proactive shaper of the next steps in their career and life. After emotions are expressed and explored, laying out options, calculating various types of tangible and intangible costs of pursuing them, and then developing a preliminary list of actions can be the steps in working through a career shock.

With unexpected events taking place in all spheres of human life, awareness about career shocks, understanding the underlying self-efficacy concerns, and regaining agency are important career competencies.


This article was originally published by Forbes on August 31, 2021, and republished with permission. 

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