How to use a ‘knockback’ to become more confident at work

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While many of us are aware of how failure can impact our careers, fewer understand how knockbacks affect us. 

Knockbacks at work happen everyday. They are sometimes small and mildly irritating, sometimes big and deeply disappointing. The word “knockback” can mean a physical blow that causes the person on the receiving end to fall backwards. Or it can mean a metaphorical blow—something that delays or halts an individual’s personal or professional progress. At work, knockbacks are much more likely to be metaphorical than physical, but they can still hurt. By managing our response to the disappointment of a knockback, we can minimize the negative impacts and we can rebound with increased self-belief.

Here’s a guide to how knockbacks impact our careers, and how you can use them to grow more confident at work. 

The connection between knockbacks and confidence

Perhaps you can recall the raw emotions that you experienced in the wake of a setback. You might have dwelled on it for a while, questioning how you allowed it to happen, beating yourself up. This is an understandable reaction and demonstrates a high degree of commitment to your work. But it’s also a counterproductive reaction because constantly questioning ourselves can have long-term negative impacts on our confidence levels and on our success. 

Let’s take a moment to explore how knockbacks can impact our confidence so that we can begin to understand how we can change our responses to knockbacks and use a disappointing experience to actually boost our confidence. 

When something doesn’t go our way at work, we may feel disappointed, embarrassed, and frustrated. These feelings are normal and natural, and they often pass in a matter of hours. But when we berate and punish ourselves in response to disappointment, we can fall into a downward cycle. When we emotionally kick ourselves, we turn a knockback from a disappointing thing that happened into a painful dent in our self-worth. “I worked really hard on putting the deal together, but it didn’t go through” becomes “I really messed it up, I should have anticipated all of their objections.” This can become “I’m just not commercial enough” and even “I’m a failure.” What started as a knockback becomes an unhealthy sense of self-doubt.

Knockbacks are unavoidable, but allowing a knockback to sap our confidence is entirely optional. The self-punishment is avoidable. In fact, rather than focusing on diminishing self-criticism, we can choose to use a knockback as fuel for our confidence.

Here are two steps which allow us to transform a self-doubt-inducing knockback into an experience that fuels our self-belief. 

Step one: Put the knockback in perspective

The first step is to interrupt the escalation of a knockback from a disappointing thing that happened to something more significant. To do this, we need to put what has happened into perspective. Here are a few ways to accomplish this: 

Normalize knockbacks

We all have disappointments. Decisions don’t always go our way, projects are turned down, promotions are denied. Knockbacks aren’t pleasant, but they are part of being human so there’s no need to go hunting for the particular personal deficit that caused this thing to happen to you. It happened, and now you have a choice about how you respond.

Separate fact from fiction

We often weave stories around knockbacks and increase their significance in our minds. To address this, try writing down everything that’s running through your head and then separating out the facts from the fiction. What actually happened? What exactly was said? These are facts. Anything that is a prediction of the future, such as those pessimistic stories you may be telling yourself about what is going to happen as a result of the setback—this is likely fiction. None of us have a crystal ball, and neither do we have the power to read minds. If you find yourself imagining what other people now think of you, that’s fiction too. You cannot know what is going on in someone else’s mind unless they tell you.

See the gray areas

Most situations aren’t wholly good or wholly bad. A simple way to keep a knockback in perspective is to look for the gray areas. For instance, your project proposal may not have been approved, but you can learn more about what is important to the executive team. Or maybe you didn’t get the new role that you went for, but you received some encouraging feedback from the hiring manager.

Think about the future

Try picturing the future. Look at the knockback from the perspective of a week, a month, a year into the future. How significant does it look from there? This kind of mental “time travel” offers a way to see a knockback for what it is: a tricky episode in a much longer story, not a moment that defines who you are or what you’re capable of.

Step two: Use knockbacks as a catalyst for forward momentum

The second step to having a more healthy relationship with knockbacks is to focus on progress and growth. This mentality is about creating movement, trying again, and learning how to bounce forward.

Keep going

In the face of a knockback, it can be tempting to retreat. However, stepping back will only diminish confidence further. Stepping forward and taking action demonstrates to ourselves what we’re capable of. Maybe something didn’t work out last time, but that doesn’t have to stop you from trying again. Learn from that first attempt, and invest those learnings into your next effort.

Give yourself credit

When faced with a knockback, we tend to focus on the thing that went wrong, not on what we did in response. Was it a knockback? Yes. Did you cope? Yes. Give yourself credit for what you did next: how you handled the disappointment of senior stakeholders, how you acted on tough feedback, how you found the motivation to try again.

Rebound

Everyone has ups and downs in their confidence. Sometimes, low moments can spark our confidence to grow. Sometimes, you might surprise yourself with your ability to find your way through a tricky situation. Things don’t always go as expected, but you keep on going, you find another way. If you use this as a trigger to recalibrate your sense of self, then you can expand your understanding of what you’re capable of and fuel your confidence with the idea that if I can get through that, I can get through anything. If you do this, a knockback can actually boost your confidence and you can build a greater level of trust in yourself. 

These two steps can help transform our experience when something doesn’t go our way at work. Knockbacks are inevitable. No matter how hard we work, no matter how brilliant we are, we will face knockbacks. The situation itself doesn’t need to define us. For instance, not getting a promotion doesn’t mean that we are suddenly less capable at our existing job and a failed deal doesn’t mean that we have suddenly lost our commercial edge. What defines us is our response to setbacks. Take a good look at what really happened, put the knockback into perspective, and then use the experience to propel yourself forward with an increased level of belief in yourself.


Julie Smith is a sought-after leadership coach, author of Coach Yourself Confident: Ditch the Self-Doubt Tax, Unlock Humble Confidence (Practical Inspiration Publishing, 20 February 2024) and founder of Talent Sprout, a leadership consultancy. 

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