It isn’t fair! Getting unstuck when bad things happen to you at work.

mm Russ Finkelstein

As a frequent pro-bono career coach, I’m very busy, because being free tends to bring in ample requests.

Recently I’ve had a number of conversations with people who were doing well until a new boss was brought in over their heads. Jaime had been wildly successful until a new manager took over. She refused to share expectations or establish a regular pattern of communication. Jaime’s boss hadn’t managed before, and took the blame out on her subordinate’s approach to “failing to show leadership.”

That isn’t fair, not to Jaime, nor to others this person manages.

When we are children we often tell our parents that, something “wasn’t fair”. In response we often hear, “life isn’t fair.” And unfortunately, work often isn’t fair, too.

It wasn’t his fault. Jaime didn’t choose this manager. However, what happens next is his responsibility.

You may want to give up in a situation like this, but you don’t ever have to resign yourself to it or start crawling into a hole of professional despair. The question is: what do you do now?

What I’m talking about is taking ownership when you’re in a tight spot. It’s not so much about specific career situations like the oft-encountered one with the bad boss, but about the attitude you bring when you’re up against it, professionally. Often I see taking responsibility as the difference in people I’m coaching in their careers.

As you can imagine, people usually come to a career coach when they’re struggling. You’d be surprised how many folks, even when they appear successful from the outside, are really flailing around beneath the surface. For some, that means taking any other job they can find, but just as often people simply give up.

I’m going to avoid considering any more specific career situations, as there are so many. Instead I’m going to explore a couple of career metaphors so that you can consider whether or not you’re taking ownership of your bad career situation.

Imagine you’re up a tree somewhere dangerous. There are wild animals circling beneath, maybe a tiger and a couple of coyotes. For the sake of the analogy these animals are peacefully coexisting, with a shared purpose of making you dinner. You’re wounded. It’s a tight spot. Those animals are trying to get up the tree and they can nip at you. They smell your fear. But they can’t actually get up into the tree to eat you. You’re exhausted. A series of unfortunate events have resulted in your being up here. But you’ve got enough food in your knapsack to last, say, a few weeks, and you manage to rig up a rope system so that you can tie yourself onto the highest branch and fall asleep without risk of tumbling down into the open landscape and your doom.

This is the kind of spot I’m talking about. And it’s all about how you handle the “what now?” moment once you’re in a spot like this.

I’m suggesting that you look around for other trees, that you consider fashioning some weapons to vanquish those coyotes, and that you weigh the risks of staying put, here, for a few more days, while you build your strength up, against, say, bolting for it in the middle of the night when the coyotes are just about dozing softly. Wait a minute…maybe they’re just pretending to be asleep. It looks like that one might even have one of its eyes open.

Nothing is certain in this situation. There is a real risk you might get eaten by coyotes. But the point is, rather than panicking and simply flinging yourself atop them or resigning yourself to withering away without food or water, that you take a moment to consider your options, try to have some faith and confidence in yourself, and at least accept the possibility that it might all be okay. Giving up means you have a 100% chance of an unhappy end, whereas considering other possibilities may not.

That’s the attitude you need to be successful over the long term in any career.

Survival stories are full of people who accept their certain death before they begin fashioning their escape. So there’s a degree of Zen-like acceptance required, when you’re up this tree, about the fact that you’re up it, in the first place. But if you can calmly accept that your back is against the wall, in a given situation, then it’s also only logical to accept the possibility that you might survive and strategize your options.

It is, in a sense, about cultivating a sense of calm in a storm. And rather than bolting and taking on unnecessary risk, calm is the best way to ensure that you are more likely to make the smartest decision. I’ll keep going back to the theme that often the best way to get to calm is to engage some friends you trust and respect who you know have an ability to help you strategize.

The second metaphor I’ll offer is that you’re on a boat, adrift. You could dive into the water, but again, who knows what kinds of animals there are under the surface, and it’s unlikely you’d survive more than a few hours without a life jacket. Or you could do a thorough inventory of the boat and figure out a way to repair the mainsail, and perhaps, a way to capture rainwater for drinking. Maybe you can carve a fishing pole out of one of the oars. At least, then, you’ll be drifting with a purpose.

In a tight spot, people often don’t see their power, the opportunities, and the things they can choose to do. Or they might choose to self-destruct, somehow, as a way of exercising some control over the overwhelming nature of their situation. But the most important thing is to recognize and remember that there is considerable hope you’ll be rescued and find yourself in a better situation eventually, if you can just hold on.

Of course, our jobs aren’t usually quite as dangerous as being adrift at sea or caught up a tree with coyotes trying to eat us. But they often feel just as overwhelming, and I do want you to feel that I’m taking the gravity of your situation seriously. The kind of stress that can be exerted by working for a bad boss, for example, can actually be just as damaging, I would say, in the long run, as some of life’s more obviously unpleasant conditions.

The point is: You have control. You have some power. And you have the choice to accept that there is hope for you in your current role. What you shouldn’t ever do is accept that the bad situation that exists now is what you have to accept as forever.

Now, it’s time for the good news. Your success in finding a way through the worst of work will help you build a resilience that will make you feel more confident you can handle whatever happens in the future. It will help you make smarter choices when looking at future opportunities and bosses. And the seed of this experience will blossom into a well-crafted narrative that you can use when interviewing about challenges you have faced in your career.

It isn’t fair. However, it is always your responsibility to make your life and career better. Have faith in yourself and in those around you to make it happen.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >