Feeling Stuck, Stifled, and Stagnant
No matter how exciting, rewarding, or gratifying your profession is (or once was), there will be times when you wonder if this is the way you want to spend the rest of your working life. Before you start searching for another job, try exploring the options that exist with your current employer.
Episode 9 - Feeling Stuck, Stifled, and Stagnant
The high points of a corporate career—receiving a bonus, a performance award or even a promotion—seldom offset the day-to-day repetition of the daily work. The endless need for reports, and team meetings, and countless hours on the phone, over time, can become monotonous and boring.
Yes, you’re compensated for doing it, but when you can’t see the personal value in it, when the work no longer motivates or provides a sense of purpose, you’re breaking rocks and moving sand piles.
To understand just how frustrating this situation can be, here’s a comment from a listener who’s currently struggling with the same problem:
Honestly, I hate my job. I’ve been in the same position for nearly ten years. I always get good reviews and I’ve let my supervisor know that I want to move up. But she always tells me to be patient, that I have to wait for an opening. Frankly, I don’t think she wants to promote me. I think she wants to keep me right where I am so she doesn’t have to train someone to take over my job. I’m really tired of it, and I’m burned out. If things don’t change soon, I’m going to quit.
Hey, Welcome back. This is Roger Reid with another episode of successpoint360
No matter how exciting, rewarding, or gratifying your profession is (or once was), there will be times when you wonder if this is the way you want to spend the rest of your working life.
And if you’re an entrepreneur or a free-lancer, stay with me for just another minute, and I’ll explain while this is just as applicable to you as it is the corporate employee.
Because I know the idea of feeling unappreciated or trapped in a work situation that’s unfulfilling or falls short of your expectations, are ailments usually associated with working for someone else. And unfortunately, media hype typically takes it a step further, suggesting these kinds of complaints are exclusive to those working under the corporate umbrella.
However, don’t make the mistake of believing the symptoms of predictable repetition are experienced only by employees. In reality, they’re typical complaints expressed by all workers—regardless of who steers the ship.
The specific cause, the reasons for becoming dissatisfied with your work varies from person to person. Maybe it’s going to the same place every day, doing the same thing for months, years, or even decades.
Sometimes, it’s the result of seeing the same inept or incompatible people every day – I mean, they’re not your tribe. Or maybe you’ve realized that the next fifty meetings won’t really make a difference in the way you feel about your life.
Part of the problem is what psychologists call habituation, a term describing the progressive loss of the initial sense of satisfaction or pleasure we feel when we do something for the first time. It’s a close cousin to what psychologists also call hedonic adaptation, which describes the tendency for humans to return to a pre-established happiness set-point, regardless of the intensity or type of circumstances going on around them.
Here’s what that means in a nutshell: If the amount of satisfaction and pleasure we associate with a particular activity continues to decrease, personal gratification will eventually fall below our threshold of value—measured as the loss of opportunity to be doing something else.
I’ll make that a lot easier to understand with an example.
An account executive can easily recall the raw exhilaration she felt when her boss congratulated her on landing that first large account. Then she brought in her second big account, and while it still felt good, it didn’t deliver the same stratospheric high she’d felt immediately following her first success.
By the time she booked her tenth client, it had become business as usual—bringing in new clients was the norm, and anything less was considered unacceptable.
That’s the way it is with any repeated activity. Even those engaging in high-risk and high-sensory professions—for example, skydivers, race car drivers, and test pilots—readily admit the adrenaline rush accompanying their first-time experience isn’t the same after they’ve repeated the process a hundred times.
At that point, many aspects of the activity, including the ones responsible for their first euphoric high, have become routine, or even a bit tedious. This is especially true when the activity becomes normalized with the need to make improvements, evaluate procedures and processes, and elevate performance to the next level.
Another good example comes from those in the entertainment business. In an industry where movie stars, singers, musicians, and stage entertainers are surrounded by glamor and glitz, it’s difficult to imagine their work as tedious or repetitive. But once they’re away from the pageantry and spectacle, these high-achievers often talk about the intensity of rehearsals, about the endless hours of study and practice, and the need for constant discipline to meet the expectations of an always demanding audience.
Even in the spotlight, with thousands of admirers watching their every move, it’s become a job.
Here’s the big question: Does a lack of motivation in your current career mean it’s time to move on? It depends. Have you outgrown your job? Or are you feeling the effects of a disappointing week or an unwanted or unpleasant change in policy?
Rather than make a change in employers, or a transfer to a different division, you may simply need a break, a chance to look at the bigger picture, an opportunity to view the situation with some perspective.
If you need a prescription for resolving the boredom at work: Take a vacation. That’s sounds simple enough, right? But there’s a large percent of the workforce—especially those having some degree of management responsibility—who are afraid to take a real vacation.
Concerned that their absence will hurt your career, there’s a large percentage of those folks who make it a point not to take more than a few days off at a time. And while they may think their sacrifice is good for the company and beneficial to their career, the truth is just the opposite.
Studies show those who believe they’ve become indispensable, and therefore refuse to take vacations are the employees most likely to develop stress-related illnesses and problems with alcohol and drugs. They’re also the most likely to leave a promising career that is temporarily stalled because their perspective is compromised.
But what about the real question: Is their fear justified? Would it really jeopardize their career by taking a couple of weeks off, away from work?
Enlightened managers know the importance of vacations. A good manager should insist their subordinates take time off.
But if you’re still concerned that your manager might not see it that way, then it’s time to confirm just how she does feel about it. Have a face to face meeting with her and explain your concerns – that you’re planning a two-week vacation, but you’re worried about being away that long from your office, from your work, and you want her input.
If you receive something other than a supportive nod to taking the time off, it could be a symptom of something else – your performance hasn’t been up to par, or there are issues with other employees that could make your absence a lot more critical. If it’s a case of bad timing, you may need to re-schedule, or put your vacation on hold until the situation is resolved.
And remember, this is not a negotiation. Certainly, you can be supportive of a temporary glitch in staffing, or some other situation that could impact the overall effectiveness of the office, or the branch or division where you work.
But you don’t need to crawl, or feel like you’re trying to take advantage of the situation. You’re not. You’re simply asking for your supervisor to support an activity that you’ve earned and is well deserved, and is a part of the mutual agreement between you and your employer. It’s no different – or it shouldn’t be – than if you asked your supervior to support your efforts to bring in more business, to increase market share, or to help train a new employee.
I’ll emphasize this point with a quick story …
After ten years of working at Cutler-Hammer, a division of Eaton Corporation, I’d earned three weeks of vacation, but as December of that year rolled around, I had not taken a single day off. That particular year had been especially hectic. One of our sales engineers had been transferred to another office, and we were shorthanded. His replacement was still several months away, and as a result, my inside sales assistant and I took over his customers, including all associated order administration and follow-up.
Based on the circumstances, taking a vacation that year was simply not an option. Taking time off work would have damaged the company’s relationship with dozen of customers, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business, and put an unacceptable workload on my assistant—something I refused to do.
As I looked at my planning calendar to determine the days our office would close for the December holidays, I realized I had enough vacation days to take the entire month of December off—which, as I said, was an impossible fantasy.
I mentioned this to my boss who responded by acknowledging my loyalty to the company and then added he would ask the regional manager—who happened to be in the office that day—to approve additional compensation equal to a month’s salary, to financially offset my forfeited vacation time.
In my supervisor’s mind, there was no question I had given up my vacation due to company circumstances, and more importantly, the company had benefited from it.
So, believing Mr. Regional would approve the request, my supervisor posed the question to him while the three of us were in the same room.
That’s when Mr. Regional got a bothered look on his face and mumbled, “That’s not possible.” And then he directed his comments at me. He said, “You should take your vacation days when they’re available. Giving them up is a personal decision, and the company can’t be responsible for poor planning on your part.”
I’ll share with you, that until that day, I’d never realized how far a person could put their head up their ass. I’ll admit that I never liked this guy, I saw him as a egomaniacal and arrogant pain in the butt. But I’d never seen him stoop so low to promote his own interests over that of his people. This jerk recognized value only when it was of benefit to him. And since he didn’t see how pulling several thousand dollars out of his discretionary account would be of any immediate advantage to him personally, he attacked my well-intentioned efforts with criticism.
So that year I gave the company an extra three weeks of uncompensated work. Double work in fact—my own and, with my assistants’ help, the productivity of the missing salesperson. The important takeaway is that I learned how much the company valued and appreciated my sacrifice, in dollars and cents—which were terms we both understood.
Let’s jump back to addressing the common fear of hurting your career by taking vacations? Here’s the most cited reasons, and while I review these, see if you recognize a similar or familiar situation:
Their workload is too heavy to leave.
There’s too much going on at work right now.
The timing isn’t right.
And then the general fear, that being gone too long—typically more than a week—could hurt their chances for promotion.
These are concerns that need to be expressed to your supervisor. Explain that you want to make sure your vacation doesn’t impose undue stress on others or cost the company new business. If you feel it would beneficial, put together the following before you have that meeting with your supervisor:
- List any contracts, meetings, correspondence, or other communication scheduled for completion or expected by others during your absence. Explain that you have researched the non-critical items and will complete the high-priority work prior to your leaving. How do you identify a high-priority task? If it’s something that needs to come from you to ensure its accuracy or will result in a bottom line you’ll have to live with (performance goals, for example), bite the bullet, and get it done before you leave.
- Make arrangements with a co-worker to take over any direct customer responsibility you may have. When someone calls for you while you’re out of the office, make sure the person responsible for answering the phone knows to route your calls to the substitute. Obviously, you’ll offer to return the favor when the situation is reversed.
- If you feel it’s necessary—either to placate your boss or to demonstrate the importance you place on your job—provide your travel itinerary and contact information. It’s usually a good idea to suggest the perceived level of need before others interrupt your vacation. In other words, is it okay to call to get your opinion on a situation that could have waited until you returned? Or do you want to be interrupted only for critical questions and decisions that could cost the company (and you) money? Also make sure your boss knows your preference for contact (phone, email, text).
All of this may sound like overkill, but doing this kind of preparation will help you realize there is a method to organize your work and take care of the expectations of those who depend on you, so you can take an extended time off.
So before making any kind of career decision based on a lack of motivation or loss of enthusiasm for the job, try taking that break.
And while you’re on vacation, set aside at least eight to ten hours a day with the cell phone and computer turned off. Just being in a different environment for a week to two—without the constant worry of needing to be in constant contact, can do wonders for your attitude.
What if a vacation doesn’t bring relief? What if your return to work immediately buries you beneath the same dark cloud you were under before you left. If that happens, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s going on—with you and your employer.
Start the process by making a list of the tasks and related job functions you absolutely hate about your job. Then determine how much of your time is dedicated to those tasks. If it’s ten percent or less, you’ve got a situation that can be managed or changed. If it’s fifty percent or more, you’re in the wrong job.
Let’s look at the positive side first. If ninety percent of your job activities are enjoyable, acceptable, or at least tolerable, determine if the unacceptable ten percent can be delegated or outsourced. One way to do this is to talk with your manager about your need to increase your personal effectiveness, and what this would mean to the company in terms of added productivity.
And if that doesn’t work?
There is another option, and you won’t find it in any corporate policy manual: And it’s to covertly train a co-worker to handle the work –the work you don’t want to do. In return, you can offer to help with an equivalent measure of their work or compensate them for their time.
And with this suggestion comes a big warning: If you go this route, never reveal this arrangement to anyone. Management generally prohibits the unofficial or unauthorized outsourcing of any job-related responsibility to another employee.
However, in spite of this restriction, I’ve known plenty of salespeople and a lot of mid-level managers who personally compensated their co-workers for handling paperwork, reports, phone calls, and other time-intensive tasks, allowing them to concentrate on more productive activities.
Alright, let’s look at the reverse situation. What if your list of disagreeable activities takes up fifty percent (or more) of your schedule? It’s time to face reality: You need a different job. And while that means changing your work activities and responsibilities, it’s not always necessary to change employers.
Before looking somewhere else for a new position, make sure you’ve exhausted every possible opportunity for a job change or transfer within your current company. If you can take advantage of an internal transfer to a more suitable job assignment, you’ll retain your employment history and seniority–which are important factors when you’re being considered for advancement and promotion.
And don’t do this as an exercise to prove to yourself that the company doesn’t offer alternative employment. If you’re already thinking that way, you’re doing yourself a disservice, because you’ll be dismissing possible opportunities before you even find them.
A new job search within your current company should be based on a comprehensive and organized plan of action.
There’s a couple of secrets to making a successful internal transfer. The first and maybe the most important is that You need to convince your employer it’s as much to their advantage as it will be to yours.
Here’s the key: Make sure your request results in job equilibrium for the company you work for.
When it comes to staffing and reassignment, management thrives on maintaining the status quo, of preserving job equilibrium. Filling one hole by creating another doesn’t solve their problem. It just shifts it, creating a new vacancy that still has to be filled.
And here’s the important part: Moving an employee from a position in which she’s been productive is inherently risky. If the transferred employee doesn’t work out in the new position, management now has two vacancies to fill.
So if you work in accounting and want to transfer to marketing, or fleet management, or R & D, you’ll need to build a strong case for yourself—one that will convince management the move will benefit the company in the long-term.
And here’s the caveat: if you don’t do it correctly, you can end up putting your future with the company in jeopardy.
Requesting a change in job assignment or location is effectively saying that you’re unhappy. Even a reasonable boss can interpret your request for a transfer as an indication you’re not one hundred percent committed to your current job.
They’ll assume your mind is elsewhere and you’re in the process of looking for something better—which could also include a position at another company. In short, they may consider you half-gone, and they may not give you their full attention and priority.
The worse-case reaction? It usually comes from a short-sighted supervisor who sees little difference between someone who wants a change and the constant complainer who doesn’t like or appreciates his job. Egomaniacal bosses are easily offended and will make sure you get the change you’re looking for—right out the door.
So, unless your manager mentions a vacancy in conversation or you’re personally presented with the opportunity, avoid making a general statement of wanting to be considered for work in other divisions or locations. It will usually be interpreted as an indication of your dissatisfaction with your current situation.
Now I know that sounds like huge catch 22. You don’t like your current job assignment, and yet, you’re trying to avoid leaving the company, and the only way to do that is to find a different kind of work to do. But if you outright tell management that that’s your intention, you run the risk of being forced to leave by being terminated.
So we need a work-around.
The answer is in your approach—how you present the idea of a transfer. You want to stay under the radar, which means waiting until you hear about a new opening within the company that you would consider.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a friend who is in the company’s HR pipeline, and most important, you trust them to keep their mouth shut, ask them for a head’s up if they hear of an opening in an area or division that interests you.
And while we’re on the subject of the HR department, listen very carefully: Never give an HR manager any indication that you’re unsatisfied with your current job assignment. It can be the kiss of death for your career. You’d think that one of the goals of any HR department would be to make the effort to match the skills and expectations of an employee to the job function that’s most likely to meet those criteria.
But that’s not the way it works. I’ll do a complete episode on the HR department, including its function and purpose, in the near future, but for right now, just remember that HR always represents the company’s interests, not yours. And regardless of how thick a smokescreen an HR manager blows in your direction, the main purpose of any HR department is to mitigate the liability resulting from lawsuits over wrongful termination, discrimination, and sexual harassment. End of story. So as far as the HR deparment goes, always leave them with the impression that you’re happy with your current position, and your first priority is to serve the company’s interests.
So choose a confederate very carefully. Make it clear you have a lot to lose if they betray your confidence. You may want to emphasize that you’re available to return the favor if and when the circumstances are reversed.
Now, back to that notification, that tip-off that there’s a vacancy in an area of the company you want to explore. When it comes, it’s time to speak up. And, as it is with most things, timing is everything. Your request must be originated between the time the vacancy occurs and before the company fills it with an applicant from outside the company.
So how do you initially bring it up to your boss and keep your personal liability as low as possible?
Last year I was asked to write a script to do just that. Here’s what I suggested:
“I just heard about the opening in the San Diego office. If you don’t have someone in mind, I’d like to be considered. My wife has always wanted to live there because it would put her closer to her family. Personally, I have to tell you, I’m happy here, but I promised my wife I’d ask, and of course, there could be some real opportunity there.”
What’s important to notice in this appeal is that the primary reason for the move has nothing to do with YOU.
Always make sure your request for a change is to accommodate a family member or is motivated by an influence outside of your current job or working conditions. This might include such things as health (again, not your health,) educational opportunities for your kids (a specialized curriculum or internship at the new location), or a move to a warmer or dryer climate.
Then . . . leave it alone.
Don’t bring it up again. If management decides you’re the right person for the job, they’ll let you know. However, if you’re told the position was filled from the outside or from another office, always reply with a positive comment: Say something like, “Good. I’m sure that will work out best for everyone. Thanks for letting me know.”
And don’t ask why you didn’t receive the consideration you were hoping for, because your boss may have blocked your request. She may have other plans for you down the road. Accept the decision gracefully, because you’re not going to change it with a hissy-fit, and assure your immediate superior that it was the right decision.
Conversely, I want to stress that there is also risk in accepting the status quo, in just skating by, doing the minimum because you’ve lost your motivation, so you’re just going to coast on your past performance. You could describe this situation as an employee with one year of experience, repeated twenty times. And although your manager or supervisor may not express it to you directly, she may be waiting on you to make the first move.
Here’s a very short story that makes the point. It’s a true situation that resulted in a successful transfer within the same company. And even more important, it was a move that turned out to be not only good for the company, but the employee as well:
It comes from a friend of mine, and for the purpose of this story, I’ll call him Tom. Tom has always wanted to be an author. But frankly, he’s never been a good writer. In fact, his fiction was hard to read and seldom held the interest of anyone who would take the time to scan through a few pages. He had sent his work out to dozens of agents and he’d self-published a few of his stories – and received scathing reviews or no reaction at all.
But he still wanted to write.
He earned his livelihood as a sales rep for a major food wholesaler. And after twelve years at the same job, he spent his days half-heartedly calling on supermarket chain stores while his mind often wandered to new story lines and character development. Feeling frustrated, even guilty. More than that, he felt like a fake, pretending to be a food salesman, while knowing he wasn’t any closer to being a successful writer. The result was mediocre career performance and a distracted, painful attempt to find an audience for his writing.
Then one morning, something interesting happened. It occurred while Tom was attending another one of those boring Monday morning staff meetings. He’d almost missed it, busy making a few notes about possible new book titles.
He learned that the company had an opening in employee communications. The main responsibility included writing a weekly newsletter to the company’s distributors. Topics included new market trends, economic forecasts, and articles on motivation and supervision.
At first, Tom dismissed it, thinking it was below his talent and ability. After all, he was a real writer, not some corporate hack, pumping out a bunch of motivational BS designed to camouflage the negatives of an industry he could barely tolerate.
But he couldn’t put it out of his mind. And later that afternoon, he decided to ask his supervisor for more information.
“I’m just curious,” he said, “not that I’m really interested. But can you tell me a little more about this writing position?”
He was surprised to hear his bosses’ response: Without any hesitation, Tom’s boss suggested he apply for the position. He said, “Tom, I know you’re not happy here. It’s obvious in your work and your attitude. This might be a good time for you try something else.”
And that’s when Tom realized his supervisor was not only telling him to give the new job a shot, but that his current job was in jeopardy.
Six months later, Tom realized he’d made the right move. Every week, his work and by-line as a writer were seen by over fifteen thousand people – way beyond the audience he’d generated as an independent writer of fiction.
More important, he was enjoying the work. He was not only becoming a better writer, he was receiving recognition for it. Able to exercise his creative focus with short articles about employee and management relations, he’d made a transition to a type of work that was better suited to his interests. No, he wasn’t writing the next great American novel, but he was taking pride in his work, and he was getting paid to do it.
Ideally, working for an employer should be a partnership. Granted, you’re the junior partner, and your vote will seldom carry much weight, but your manager should respect you, treat you with dignity, and be willing to help when you ask for it. In return, your employer has the right to expect your full and undivided attention, meaning that you complete your assignments on time, that you’re productive, that your attitude will reflect a positive and appreciative tone during your interactions with everyone you come in contact with, especially when you’re on company property and on company time. In other words, the company expects you to bring your A-game.
The problem comes when one of you doesn’t live up to its side of the bargain. And it may not be intentional. It can happen through circumstances, from managers being more concerned about running a taunt ship, about maintaining the status quo, instead of taking a longer-term view to ensure the best result for both the employee and the company.
So, if you believe you’re “locked-in,” without the possibility of a transfer, you can point the finger and tell yourself that it’s management’s fault. But that won’t change a job situation that no longer works for you. If you’re ready for a change, take the initiative and begin the process of transitioning to a career that is more appropriate for you and better suited for your skills and expectations.
And as I always stress, when you’ll in the process of considering a job change, always keep your search a secret from everyone! And I mean everyone! That includes anyone connected to your work and the workplace. That means customers, suppliers, the UPS gal, the landscaper, and the guy who runs the parking lot vacuum. Even if these folks are not employees of the same company, you can bet they know someone who its. So make sure you transmit the right kind of subliminal signals to everyone you encounter during working hours. While you’re on the job, or attending a job-related function, always convey a positive attitude about your current position—until you’re ready to pack your personal belongings, and drive across town to your new job.
Your goal is to maintain your current income for as long as possible—until you’ve accepted an offer from another employer. There’s plenty of ways to use your existing contacts, relationships, and job circumstances to really supercharge a job search, and you can do it without jeopardizing your current income stream. Which we will cover in another episode.
I’ll leave you with this;
The right job will give you a sense of making a difference with your life. It’s the exact opposite of spending your time constantly putting up with oppressive supervision, or fighting a senseless bureaucracy, or otherwise enduring an intolerable situation because quitting and changing our direction would disappoint our spouses, our family, or even our parents.
Yes, I know it’s true: Sometimes we have to do it for the money. And that works – for a while. But trading your time for money eventually takes its toll in ways you can’t put a price on. One of those is the regret you’ll feel when you look back on your life and wonder what it could have been like if you chosen to follow your heart instead of trudging down a path created by others to finally end up disappointed and out of time.
Hey, that’s it for this episode. If you’d like a transcript, you’ll find it in the show notes at www.successpoint360.com Just click on the link under the appropriate episode. And yes, I do want to hear from you. You can submit your questions and comments by clicking on the voicemail button located in the menu on the successpoint360 website.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next time.
© 2020, Roger A. Reid