At one point or another we’ve all dreamt about changing jobs. The reasons vary. For some, it’s about money, for others it’s about doing something with meaning or maybe the chance to create their own business. As someone who’s lived in 11 countries, worked in 10+ different companies and started a few others over the last 20 years I know the feeling all too well. I also know that although change ‘can’ be good, it can also be bad if you don’t think things through properly.
Everyone one of us faces frustrations with our careers and jobs. There will be good times and bad times. However, in today’s age of “instant gratification” making job changes too quickly or without knowing where you’re going next can literally be a career killer. So the question is: When should you make a change? What signs should you look for.
Over the past few years, I discovered a powerful yet simple formula which I now apply to my work life and to assess how I'm doing where I'm working. The formula is this:
“When negative energy tasks (NET) > positive energy tasks (PET) over a prolonged period of time (T), then = Burnout (B)”.
Put differently, the formula for sustained happiness at work is simply:
So now when the formula is tipping towards “burn-out” I know I need to rebalance the way I’m working and focus on doing more positive tasks and reduce the amount of time spent on negative ones.
The reality is none of us is happy at work all the time. There will always be days, weeks or even months when we’re working flat out and some of the work we’re doing is sucking positive energy out of us. That’s normal. But when negative energy is constantly outweighing positive energy over a significant period of time you simply have to stop and say: “Why is this happening? When is this going to change? How much more am I willing to endure?”
Even today, running my own business, there are days when I’m working on things I dislike doing. There will always be tasks I enjoy less but the key is that they are outweighed by the tasks I enjoy doing more.
Aside from the formula above, I’ve found that there are clear signs to pay attention to that might suggest your personal equation is out of balance and that you either have to find a way to redress it or look for other career options. Let’s visit my top 7:
#1. Growth and learning: Part of what kills many jobs is simply the same old routine day after day. As human beings, were innately curious and many of us enjoy learning new things. Learning new tools, new skills, languages or about new industries keeps us sharp and keeps us motivated. More importantly, the job market is changing incredibly rapidly and it’s estimated that 47% of jobs won’t even be around in 25 years time according to this article in Big Think. So what does that mean for us? It means, we constantly have to be learning new skills, tools and techniques to stay ahead of the job market and increase our market value. In my experience the onus is on you to start thinking of what you’d like to learn and where you want your career to go. Once you have an idea you need to ensure you discuss this proactively with your manager or HR person. However, if, after repeated attempts, you’re not being heard or can’t get the training or support for how you would like to develop professionally, you may have to start thinking about other options for career growth. Be aware that this type of approach is really for those working in larger organizations. If you’re working in a startup with limited resources, it’s really up to you to craft your own role, take ownership and ensure you’re getting your own work done before starting to take on additional responsibility.
#2 Appreciation: If you’re at all familiar with Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs you’ll know that once your basic needs are met (food, shelter, security) the next most important needs are purely psychological. Self esteem is important to people. Although appreciation by your manager or others may vary and will be more important for some people compared to others, a lack of appreciation may demotivate people, leave them feeling empty and not provide them with guidance on where they are doing well and where they could be improving. According to this article in Harvard Business Review, a study by Towers Perin (a recruiting firm) showed that the single highest driver of employee engagement at work was whether an employee felt that their manager really cared about their well being or not. If you’re not feeling appreciated by your manager or team /organization for a prolonged period of time, you might want to investigate other options either on a different team, in a different role or in a different company. Appreciation is a perfectly normal thing to expect at work but it’s often a skill that’s overlooked particularly by inexperienced managers.
#3 Inability to leverage core strengths: Although growth and learning are important, research shows that we’re more likely to be motivated, do well and also feel appreciated when we’re working on tasks where we leverage our strengths to produce the best work (Strengthfinder is a great book that talks about this). Naturally, you won’t always be working on things that you like or have a core competence in but the reverse is also true: If you’re spending most of your time working on things that don’t leverage your core skills / strengths, you won’t be as successful or feel as satisfied. It’s more likely that you also won’t be building the kind of “positive” energy we discussed earlier and may even be working on things that are producing more negative energy then positive energy (thereby unbalancing your personal equation). If you go too long without leveraging your strengths it may actually damage your self confidence which in turn makes creating new job opportunities harder. It might be time to consider a change.
#4 Negative Team Dynamics (NTD): NTD is a killer. I spoke to an executive a few months ago at Nvidia who told me that despite going through some really hairy situations with his team, they had always stuck together through thick and thin. They were like brothers and shared a strong bond. They worked hard together, we’re open, accountable and appreciative of each other. They weren’t afraid to give each other the hard truth in a respectful, constructive way and they were also quick to show appreciation and give credit when / where it was due. The reverse, sadly, is also very true. Some teams are characterized by excessive competition, politics, lack of accountability, inadequate support or even open hostility between team members. When people attack each other constantly the environment can get toxic pretty quickly. That can rapidly poison the environment for others and sap them of energy and motivation. The result can create an environment of missed accomplishments, finger pointing and increased frustration. If management is unable or unwilling to step in and decisively sit people down and sort things out than it might be time to consider your options.
#5 Constantly changing priorities (CCP): Let’s face it: things happen and priorities change. That’s a part of life and a part of doing business. However, when priorities are constantly changing due to the whim of certain people or teams you’ll find that your energy can be sapped pretty quickly. In my experience, people don’t mind working under pressure and even long hours but if priorities change constantly they begin to lose confidence in leadership and might begin to question why they’re working as hard as they are. Furthermore, a company’s culture can have a large role to play in this as well. If management takes the time to share information with employees, keep them up to speed and explain their rationale on why certain decisions are made, that can go a long way to allying employee concerns. Constantly changing priorities are not only bad because they throw people off course but also because they jeopardize an organization's long term viability. If your company is changing strategy every 6 months due to market changes, consumers needs, or the latest fad, you might begin to question the long term strategy of the company or the leadership of its management. A favorite saying among cyclists is: “The race is not to the swift but to those who keep pedaling.” The same is often true in business. Making an occasional shift or adjustment is OK but if you’re always changing direction you’ll never reach your destination. Too many decisions with poor rationale can imply management doesn’t know what it’s doing or, worse, doesn’t trust or care enough to explain their decisions to employees. That may be a sign to head for the exit.
#6 Believing your own bulls**t: BYOBS is one of my favorites and in the Valley you see it often. Sometimes this can be a sign of confidence but all too often when management, particularly young managers, start to believe their own BS, things can go very wrong very quickly. Usually, this is a result of success that comes too quickly or too easily. The business is on such a tear that founders or senior management believe they can do no wrong. “Consumers, competitors, partners, regulators just ‘don’t get it’. We know what’s right. Just leave it to us.” That becomes the default attitude and if anyone questions it they’re either ignorant, stupid or not committed. At other times, even large, highly successful companies who have lived at the top of their markets for years simply don't see massive changes coming to their industry (see below). When management ceases to ask the right questions and loses its humility (assuming they were humble to begin with) it’s time to consider other options.
#7 The Never-ending crisis: The best for last. Some companies or teams are always in a perpetual “crunch” or state of crisis. The org just lurches from one crisis to another. People are expected to be “all hands on deck” all the time - nights, weekends, holidays. The reality is that every company, business unit or team has emergencies and when things get tough everyone is expected to do their share and pull together for the good of the team. But when you’re working flat out, all the time for months on end or even years on end something is clearly wrong. A crisis implies something “unusual” or “out of the ordinary.” In my experience, teams that are permanently in this mode are their because of management. Either priorities are constantly changing (see above), resources are insufficient to achieve the desired goals (poor planning) or objectives are simply not realistic (lack of realistic expectations + poor planning). Regardless, if you’re waking up tired for weeks and months on end with no visible solution in sight and it’s simply another one of a string of crises, you may start thinking about a new role.
The above list certainly isn’t exhaustive and there can be many other reasons why you might want to switch jobs (a bad manager being a big one) but certainly these are telltale signs you should keep in mind as an employee. If you’re self aware, critical and honest about your own situation, you’ll see these things happen in front of you and you can try to sit down with your manager to address them or even talk to someone who might help you come to grips with what’s happening. It’s also important to realize that you shouldn’t also be hypersensitive to these signs and run for the exits at the first sign of trouble. As a rule of thumb you should always look to give a new role 12-18 months of runway before you arrive to the conclusion that your situation needs a drastic change. That said, recognizing you might be in the wrong environment is the first step to getting yourself in the right environment where you can be successful and happy.
How do you do that? That will be the topic of my next post: How To Make Career Transitions. So stay tuned.
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