When *!&# happens, it could be your big break

Work life will hand you lemons - that's a given. It's up to you to squeeze some career cred out of the situation.

By Sam Grobart, Money Magazine senior editor

(Money Magazine) -- It's a fact of life - and of work: Bad things happen. Deals are blown, ambitions are squelched, things go to hell in a handbasket. But a bad situation doesn't have to be all that bad - if you know how to make it work for you.

First thing you have to do? It's like that song in West Side Story: Be cool. A level head is key; repeated bouts of guilt and self-recrimination won't get you anywhere.

Focus instead on what you can do to turn the situation around, then act swiftly and decisively to capitalize on the opportunities the circumstances present.

Of course, some mistakes are impossible to recover from. But if you're able to pull it off, you may wind up impressing people in ways you never could have if everything had gone according to plan.

Just consider the possibilities in these commonplace office nightmares:

No. 1: You screw up

The knee-jerk response Distance yourself from your mistake as much as possible. If you can, blame someone else.

The smart response Don't run away from a problem, run toward it. Own the mistake, showing how quickly and effectively you can fix it.

Last year Rebecca Greenglass, an executive at an office-supply wholesaler in Fort Lauderdale, blew a big job for a major client when she wrote down the wrong quantities of merchandise in their order.

"It was a simple mistake but a significant one," she recalls.

Instead of panicking, Greenglass took charge: She alerted the client to the problem as soon as she discovered it (before they found out themselves), moved heaven and earth to secure the supplies they wanted in the proper amounts and then personally accompanied the shipment to the customer.

A week later the client called her boss to rave about what a great job she'd done. "Of course, I wish I hadn't made the mistake in the first place," Greenglass says now, "but I developed a much better relationship with the client as a result of it."

"Recognize that you have a chance to impress with how you handle mistakes," says Arlene Hirsch, career counselor and author of How to Be Happy at Work.

Just because you messed up doesn't mean the game is over - it's just changed.

No. 2: You ask for a promotion and get rejected

The knee-jerk response Hole up in your office and lick your wounds. Stick pins in a voodoo doll of your boss.

The smart response Use the rejection to map out a clear path to achieving your career goals.

A few years ago I was working at another publication and felt I deserved a promotion. My boss felt otherwise. In a huff, I walked out of his office and did what any normal person would do: I complained to a friend who worked a few cubicles down.

He said, "Hey, this isn't so bad. Why don't you ask the boss exactly what you need to accomplish here to get that promotion and then establish a schedule to do those things?"

So I dropped the attitude, went back to my manager, worked out a road map and suddenly had a mutually understood plan that led to the promotion I was seeking.

"There's a difference between not getting something you want and not getting something you've earned," says Hirsch. "If you haven't gotten something you want, it's up to you to figure out what you can do to earn it. Make it overt and objective. That way, it's not about whether the boss likes you, it's about whether you've done X, Y and Z."

No. 3 Your office is losing people left and right - and you're still there

The knee-jerk response Get bitter. Talk smack about the company. Assume you're next.

The smart response Recognize this as a time to step up, make new alliances and take on new responsibilities.

About three years ago Bob Richardson saw his Newton, Mass. tech-consulting firm lose about a third of its staff to layoffs and resignations. Bob wasn't initially thrilled about taking on the extra work the departures created, but it soon dawned on him that it was, in fact, the perfect time to take on new tasks he would never have had the chance to do when his company was fully staffed.

"I started to realize that I was learning a lot more about the business than if I'd just been doing my old job."

Last year Bob was promoted. "It was rough going for a while, but I wouldn't have gotten the chance to move up if I hadn't stretched when times were tight," he says.

It's hard to be so coolly analytical when it feels as if the world is falling down around you, but it's what you have to do if you're going to take charge of a bad situation.

Doing well at your job when all is going well is easy. Doing well under fire is how you make a great career.

___________________

Take the job survey. We want to hear more about your career for an upcoming feature in Money Magazine.

How to be the new guy at work Top of page

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.
Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.