One of the most challenging, and often complex decisions I’ve had to make in my career is whether it’s time to move on from a job that is frustrating or to stay put.
You’ve probably been at the same crossroad. The decision is even harder when you love some aspects of your job while others seem intolerable or insurmountable.
You might have good reasons to leave your job – your boss or colleague is rude or short-tempered, leaving you stunned and depleted – or outraged. Perhaps the work itself isn’t challenging, or you’re tired of doing really good work that isn’t appreciated or recognized.
When you’re unhappy with something at work, it’s tempting to think that the only option is to leave and find a new job; and to make that change sooner, rather than later. But is that really your only option?
Maybe not. If you make this decision without considering other options, you could miss out on the personal and professional growth that will help you go farther in your career. You might miss the opportunity to achieve your goal to make an impact. In order to gain the perspective you need to chart your path forward, consider these questions:
Question 1: Have you explored what would be possible for you if you stayed longer?
In her book, Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success, my friend Deborah Lee James writes about a time when she had good reasons to quit her job. Debbie, (as she prefers to be called) had landed a job as Vice President of International Operations and Marketing for a top tier global company specializing in aerospace and building products. It was a challenging and potentially rewarding opportunity as the position was newly created.
As she tried to create this new role she ran into turf battles because the position description had been too vague. She also soon realized she had a boss who was quick-tempered and capricious, and one she could not please.
Instead of quitting straight away, Debbie assessed the situation and decided on a variety of ways to improve communications with her boss. She focused on cultivating a positive attitude as she explored ways to make the situation work.
After nearly a year, she concluded that her efforts were not producing the results she’d wanted. While she found another job, she persevered in doing excellent work at her current company and in maintaining a positive, gracious attitude.
Although the experience was a difficult one, Debbie describes many positive outcomes from this experience:
- She gained key skills, like learning the fundamentals of doing business overseas, something that would be invaluable in future roles including as the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force!
- She gained lifelong relationships with people who are part of her network.
- She affirmed that she could move forward in a difficult working environment with optimism and dignity, and that you can gain valuable positives out of every negative experience.
Question 2: Have you thought of things that that you can change in your current role?
Are there projects that are more interesting to you at work? Are there projects that align with your strengths better? Have you asked to work on them? If you add one project that you enjoy and it energizes you, it could make a big difference. Studies show that increasing your happiness in one aspect of your work often has a ripple effect in other parts of your work.
One thing you can change is how to approach people you are having difficulty with. This worked for me. When I was appointed to serve on a highly visible political board, a few of the existing board members publicly opposed my appointment. They didn’t know me personally; and were not familiar with my work. They simply had ideological differences with the person who had appointed me.
A few of my close friends advised me to quit, saying life is too short to work in an adversarial environment. I was tempted to take their advice!
I’d never been in a situation quite like this. And although I felt like I didn’t know what to do in this specific scenario, I asked myself, “what do I know?” I jotted down a few answers to my own question, including, “I know that whatever the situation, a good place to start is to build relationships. Everything depends on relationships.”
So, rather than fight back publicly, or gossip in backchannels, I tried a different approach. I decided to focus on building relationships with each of the board members, beginning with the ones who were critical of my appointment. One by one I invited them for coffee, which can be an ideal environment to get to know someone.
We began to understand that we had similar motivations for the public good, and listened to each other.
From those first coffees together, we built relationships that became productive, respectful, and even enjoyable. This foundation of respect helped us navigate our inevitable disagreements.
During several years in that role, I developed new skills and made significant contributions that will have a lasting impact on a variety of stakeholders. That is an important goal for me. I’m so glad I didn’t quit because I would have missed out on the meaningful work, career growth, and friendships.
Question 3: Have you asked for the insights of others?
Do you have a trusted partner, mentor, coach, or friend who has faced this dilemma in the past? In their book, Decisive, Professors (and brothers) Chip and Dan Heath write about Doreen, a caseworker for L.A. County’s welfare department. Her job was increasingly stressful, and it was negatively affecting her family life. Yet, in her heart of hearts, she didn’t want to leave the job where she could have so much impact and live out her beliefs to serve the less fortunate.
Doreen visited a mentor at her church who encouraged her to find ways to manage her stress, rather than leave her job. She also talked to her husband Frank and he pushed her to think about ways she could increase her happiness by adding stress-busting activities she enjoyed after work. This included stopping at the gym to work out and listening to music she loved on the way home. She found that doing things she loved right after work replenished her, giving her energy and a renewed perspective by the time she arrived home.
By asking for the insights of others, Doreen made a few simple changes that generated more happiness in her life and gave her renewed energy for her work.
Question 4: Are there other aspects outside of your work identity that you can cultivate?
Author and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin writes, “ It’s true, as research suggests, that we’re happier when we have many aspects to our identity.
Having many identities protects us: if you get fired from your job, you can think, ‘People think I’m doing a great job at the church finance committee’; if you can’t play tennis anymore, you can think, “Now I have more time to garden.” Adding the identity of “blogger” (and then “podcaster”) to my professional identity was enormously energizing, interesting, and reassuring.’
My observation is that too often, when deciding on whether to quit or stay at a job, you and I might limit our possibilities by not recognizing that we have more options than we think.
Before you decide, consider a variety of options by asking these questions so you won’t miss out on the short and long term benefits of growth for you, and for your career. And if you do decide to leave, do it gracefully like Debbie did. There are a variety of ways to ensure you part company graciously.
I’d love to hear from you: How have you decided when to stay or when to leave a job? What insights did you gain along the way?