When faced with difficult career transitions, vexed workplace relations and no clear answers, it is common for people to ask themselves: do I soldier on or quit my job? Quick reactions and limited options may lead some people to new employers or positions, only to find old issues recurring. This article examines why it’s important to reflect and respond instead of reacting to every challenging work circumstance.
In my capacity as a career and leadership coach, I see browned off and burnt-out professionals stuck with painful employment problems. This article addresses these. First I share my own experience, then examine widespread workplace tensions and a possible solution. Last, I provide a self-assessment exercise. It may help with getting unstuck and facing work fiascoes.
Consider my story. Landing my first dream job raised my hopes sky-high. I anticipated rewarding and challenging opportunities to apply my skills and make a real difference. It started well. But a year in, the day-to-day reality was a slog. I had repetitive, troubling thoughts: “if only I could bypass my manager; I should talk to the boss; I want to address the underlying issues but they do not; I’m not getting anywhere; I just want to do my job properly”.
I wanted cooperative team relationships but found them complicated and competitive instead. I got stuck in a nightmare crying with despair, blame, shame and failure to exercise my power and influence. Enough was enough. I was over it and quit, hoping my next work environment would better suit my skills and interests.
A decade passed. I’d recently won a great job in a respected public agency. My new role forwarded my commitment to team-work and research excellence. However, my new boss did not seem interested in the organisation or what the team was doing to strengthen our impact. Troubled thinking returned: “My team and I are doing the hard work but get no recognition; I want more honest conversations but can’t talk to my boss”. I was stuck. Again.
Taking a broader view, negative work experiences affect both employees and employers with cumulative impacts. Disgruntled employees who leave may necessitate expensive re-hiring and re-skilling processes. Disgruntled human resource professionals and employers who stay may lose heart and… more staff. The cost goes beyond the individual and impacts our society and economy as a whole.
Market research in 2020 showed that more people are voluntarily moving jobs more often than ever before. Over one working life, people aged between 18 and 75 can now expect 17 employers and 5 career changes on average! In February 2021, the Australian Bureau of Statistics concluded that the most common reason people left a job was to simply get a better job or because they wanted a change.
Caveat: leaving particular workplaces is appropriate for specific people in specific situations. Just not every time there is a workplace problem. Knee-jerk contract terminations contribute to high turnover rates (also known as churn) and low work satisfaction indices. An HR focus on generic values and behaviour charts, performance management training or structural reform systems does not solve root problems in human relationships. Neither employees nor employers take full responsibility and problems repeat.
One solution is to authentically question responsibility. Think it over, how responsible are you?
Taking the U-turn
Instead of focusing on external circumstances and avoiding problems, one strategy I recommend to my clients is to take a 180° turn to face them and examine yourself. U-turns facilitate internal reflection and growth once we recognise that we are stuck in any situation. Ontology – the study of being – can inform our conception and understanding of being stuck with a past or present situation. U-turns are predicated on responsibility. In his book BEING, ontological philosopher and author Ashkan Tashvir says:
Responsibility is being the primary cause of the matters in your life regardless of their source. It is the extent to which you choose to respond to them p. 277.
Taking a U-turn requires taking time out to consciously respond to the circumstances of life. Driving away from repetitive complaints, excuses, justifications and ineffectiveness – simply drives them underground. Choosing to develop the leader within is a choice to create and implement solutions, accept consequences, expand commitments and be accountable for results.
Question: What/who was the common denominator in my bad boss history? Answer: me. And what was the impact? Answer: blame, shame, regret, repeat. Upon reflection, I discovered that I did not have any bad bosses! Instead, I had flawed perspectives, a skewed self-image and a slew of stories and interpretations about the past that impacted me and others.
By taking responsibility for the impact on my life at home and at work, I chose to have that uncomfortable conversation with my boss. In owning and communicating my thoughts and feelings, I successfully walked the tight-rope of tension away from blame and reactivity toward comprehensive responsibility.
My life changed rapidly. Where I previously experienced disconnection with my boss, I now found an ally and a generous soul. When she left after 6 months, I stepped into her leadership role and stayed put. This was a transformative turn in my career.
Exercising responsibility works
The following exercise is designed to increase awareness and develop participants’ capacity to be the primary cause and driver of all work transitions.
Create an employment autobiography. Provide one page for each job. Include the year, the place, your life circumstances, your employer and the role or position. Be specific. For each job, reflect on and write down your role, responsibilities, what you learned and why you left.
Read the whole autobiography, notice any repeat patterns and reactions. Consider what these reactions cost you, your family and your colleagues. Ask them. Ask yourself: are you (still) in denial, are you avoiding or blaming some person, event or circumstance?
Change perspective. Act as if you were the boss of your life. List actions you can see to take. Who could support you to consciously respond to your situation? Phone a friend, a family-member, a work colleague or coach to share what you learned.
Enough is definitely enough: it is time to stop worrying and reacting to issues at work. From time to time, people face difficult career transitions, vexed relationships and ambiguous circumstances at work. Why is it important to reflect and respond and not to react and leave? Because leaving can be a band aid solution. When leaving becomes a habit, deeper scars can slow careers down and hold people back.
Recidivist patterns of behaviour and lasting emotional upsets require intervention before the real job starts – expanding, developing and performing well in life.
Tension is eased the moment employers and employees stop resisting their circumstances and start being responsible at work. We all have choices in how we respond, how we lead our lives. Responsible leadership can result in full communication, enhanced productivity and added work-life satisfaction. When being responsible, job stability and integrity replace job mobility. Over time new career opportunities emerge.
If this article has raised issues that you want to address with me, if you have questions, or if you want further practical challenges, I invite you to contact me through my profile or via the enquire button below.