Skip to Main Content

Sheryl Sandberg on Handling Disappointment at Work

Sheryl SandbergIf you’ve read only one book about professional development, chances are it’s Sheryl Sandberg’s New York Times bestseller Lean In. It got a lot of working women talking, and it turned Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, into one of America’s favorite executive role models—male or female. Last year, with the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, and her Facebook post about her grief, Sandberg grabbed our attention again and started a new national conversation about adversity.

Now she has a new book out about the topic, which she co-authored with Wharton professor Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. She says it started with her asking Grant, a friend, what, if anything, she could do to help her children and herself get through their loss. The research findings he shared with her “were incredibly valuable insights for me at the hardest time in my life,” she says. “Whether you’re facing adversity or someone you love is—or if you just want to build resilience in your everyday life—there are things you can do right now that can help.”

Sandberg will be speaking in November at the 2017 Texas Conference for Women. Until then, here’s more about the book as well as her advice about grief in the workplace and handling job loss or disappointment.

If people take away only one idea or tip from this book, what would it be and why?

“Cultivate gratitude, even—and especially—when it’s really hard.

“Several months after Dave died, my kids and I went to a bat mitzvah. At one point, a friend from high school pulled me onto the dance floor and we cut loose—and a few moments later, I burst into tears. That was the first moment I had felt really happy since Dave died—and it was immediately followed by a flood of guilt.

“The next day, I talked to Adam about it. He said, ‘Of course this was the first moment you were happy. You haven’t been doing a single thing that brings you joy.’  He suggested that I start writing down three moments of joy every day. This became my New Year’s resolution for 2016, and of all the New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever made, this is the one I’ve kept the longest. Nearly every night before I go to sleep, I jot down three happy moments in my notebook. Doing this makes me notice and appreciate these flashes of joy. Now when something positive happens, I think, this will make the notebook. It’s a habit that brightens the whole day.”

In the book, you talk about being hurt when people acted as though Dave hadn’t died. But you also admit to being upset when someone said the wrong thing. So in the workplace specifically, is it better to err on the side of saying too much or too little?

“In the weeks after Dave died, I was shocked by how many friends and co-workers didn’t ask how I was doing. They’d make small talk and avoid the subject. Or worse, they would not say anything at all. I felt invisible. I realized that before Dave died, I often did the same thing. When people faced loss or illness, I’d say something like, ‘I’m so sorry you’re going through this’ the first time I saw them and then I’d often never mentioned it again. I didn’t want to remind them of what they were going through. Now I know that it’s not possible to remind friends or coworkers that they just loss a spouse or got diagnosed with cancer—it’s always on their mind. So now I check in more regularly. I also no longer say, ‘It’ll be OK,’ because a lot of times you don’t know if it really will be OK. What I now say is, ‘I’m here for you. I don’t know what will happen, but we’ll get through it together.’ That acknowledges their pain in a more realistic way.

“Of course, not everyone will want or need the exact same thing. The best approach is to ask people and to treat them the way they want to be treated—not the way you’d want to be treated.

“Here’s one small piece of advice that worked for me: don’t ask someone who’s grieving, ‘How are you?’ It often feels like the standard hello, not a genuine question—and it doesn’t encourage people to open up in an honest way. A better question is, ‘How are you today?’ That says, I really want to know, and it creates the space for someone to answer more fully and honestly if they choose.”

What is your advice to someone who just lost their job or got passed over for a promotion?

“Life events like these can hit hard. My advice would be, first, to go easy on yourself. Too often, we push ourselves to act like everything’s fine even when it isn’t. Losing your job or feeling like you had a failure at work can strike a blow to your confidence, and that deserves to be acknowledged.

“My self-confidence shook after Dave died, including my confidence about work. I worried that I couldn’t possibly do my job when I was grieving so deeply. To help me rebuild my confidence, Adam suggested another list-making exercise: write down three things I had done well each day. Keeping a list like this helps because it focuses on small wins. For six months, almost every night before I went to bed, I made my list. Sometimes, my accomplishments were really small: ‘Made tea. Got through all of my emails. Went to work and focused for most of one meeting.

“None of these were heroic accomplishments, but that little notebook by my bed served an important purpose. It made me realize that for my entire life, I’d gone to bed thinking about what I’d done wrong that day, how I’d messed up, what wasn’t working. Just the act of reminding myself of anything that went well was a welcome shift. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s going through a tough time and feeling unsure of their own self-worth.”

Sheryl Sandberg will be a keynote speaker at the 2017 Texas Conference for Women.

tx-newsletter-icon  Read more from the October 2017 newsletter

Get The Conference in Your Inbox

Join over 300,000 like-minded people for inspiration, insights and community for working women — plus Conference news and speaker announcements.

No thanks, I don't want to learn