Professional setbacks can happen to anyone. Whether you get fired, miss out on a promotion, or just make a mistake at work that makes you look bad, it can be really upsetting when things don't go your way.

The good news is, one error or missed opportunity doesn't have to define your career or hold you back from advancing. There are things you can do to quickly get back on track and perhaps even end up in a better situation than you would have been in if you'd never hit the bump in the road. 

Young woman shaking hands at a job interview.

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Assess the impact

You need to take a clear-eyed look at how the setback is likely to affect you. If it was a big one, you may be looking at the need to find a new job. If it was a more minor mistake and you're still employed, you may have lost your employer's trust. If you missed out on a promotion, it may take longer for you to climb the career ladder. You need to figure out exactly how the consequences are going to affect your professional future so you can make a plan.  

Identify the reason for the setback

You also need to get an idea of why things didn't go your way so you can figure out what to correct.

If it was an error you were responsible for that led to the setback, you'll have to figure out what happened to avoid a repeat. Perhaps you had too much on your plate, for example, and you need to learn to delegate more or speak up to your boss about being assigned too many tasks. If you undertook an assignment that you weren't qualified for, you may need to learn new skills. Or if you procrastinated and rushed to get a project done, developing better time management could be the key. 

In some cases, a professional setback happens for reasons beyond your control. Your company may be having financial troubles or your current job may be a dead end for another reason. But you still need to suss out what went wrong to decide how to react. If you were passed up for a promotion because your company doesn't value you, that tells you to start looking for new opportunities where climbing the career ladder is possible. 

Determine what your objective is and make a plan to achieve it

With a clear idea of what went wrong and what the fallout is, you can figure out what you want to do next.

This could mean deciding how to rectify things at your current workplace, perhaps by outlining a plan to your boss to show you'll avoid future mistakes or by joining a training program to develop the skills you need to score that promotion. Or it could mean changing course and looking for a new job (or even an entirely new career path) if your setback happened because you aren't a good fit in your field.

Once you have a clear idea of where you want to go next, you can take steps to get there, such as sending out your resume or starting your new training. 

Don't let a professional setback define your career

It can be frustrating and even frightening when something goes wrong that's a threat to your career plans. A problem at work can sometimes make it feel like you'll have a harder time earning enough to save for retirement or accomplish other financial goals. 

But a missed promotion or a messed-up situation at work usually won't have a permanent effect on your professional future. As long as you identify what went wrong, own up to any errors, and chart a new path, any setbacks should only be temporary.