What If I’m Stuck?

One of the less obvious rewards of having written a couple of books is getting feedback and the discussions that ensue. This is, of course, once you get past the initial anxiety or perhaps sheer terror of having years of work cross-examined. On this particular afternoon, my editor and I were meeting with a friend who had just finished my new book. Beth is a chemist turned organizational change strategist and currently CEO of a fast-growing medical device company (so, both smart and experienced). More importantly, she is thoughtful and kind – important traits when it comes to feedback. During our conversation about developing leaders and crafting extraordinary teams, Beth asked a profound question, “But what about the people who, for whatever reason, are stuck in their jobs and aren’t on an extraordinary team. When they struggle with lack of purpose, dysfunctional teammates, or perhaps a toxic boss what’s your advice to them?”

In mediocre organizations, issues are often kicked around under the table like dead fish, making the atmosphere increasingly unbearable, and no one is dealing with the problems.

Feeling stuck in a job that doesn’t meet your needs or, even worse, feels detrimental to your career or wellbeing is frustrating, to say the least. Moreover, I don’t believe I’ve met anyone over the age of 30 who hasn’t at some point felt stuck. The challenge in answering Beth’s question is partially due to the far-ranging circumstances that can lead to being in that situation, along with the various motivations for why we work. Fortunately, within the nature of the challenge also lies insights into how to deal with it.

Start with Purpose

Like Thomas Carlyle, and many philosophers before and after him have observed, people need and want “purpose”. It’s a core psychological need as humans. In the 20th and early 21st centuries, their observations have been validated again-and-again by psychologists and behavioral scientists of every stripe. So, it’s a good place to start. Sometimes you must dig hard to find purpose in a job, but one of the great benefits of “purpose” being a core human need is that, if we look hard enough, we can find it anywhere. Years ago, I heard a story about President Kennedy’s visit to NASA shortly after announcing the goal to “put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” The story goes that, while touring the NASA facility, he stopped and asked an older gentleman about his job. The man answered, “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” Clearly delighted with the answer, President Kennedy asked more specifically what he did at NASA. The man answered, “Mr. President, I’m the janitor here.”

So start by finding purpose in your job, one that ties your values to the broader purpose of the organization. It may be something small, or only a portion of your job that you strongly connect with, but when you find that purpose, you’ll gain perspective that will help you deal with the challenges of your situation at work.

Then Inspire Yourself

Because we are human, there will always be gaps between our expectations and experiences with others; the key is how we manage them. 

In an ideal world, you work with a leader who helps you find meaning in your work, invests in your abilities so you can achieve your purpose, and then gives you the freedom to go after it. While our world is often far from ideal, you can still aspire to that ideal by identifying where you find significance in your work and investing in yourself to build the skills and capabilities to fulfill that vision. As you do, you’ll not only reinforce where you find relevance today, but you’ll develop competencies that may help you become “unstuck” and gain the freedom to pursue your dreams.I’ve mentored many professionals who, at some point, find themselves stuck and frustrated. Often, they’ve been through endless articles and built a small library of books on both personal and career development, which have left them more confused than clear about how to move forward. My counsel is: forgo the lists of pop-psychology prescriptions and focus on the fundamentals of purpose, competencies, and freedom that we all share as people. In doing so, you will find inspiration that motivates you.

And Mind the Gaps

In our relationships at work—those with our boss or coworkers—the dynamic of expectation versus experience is what leads to developing strong, trusting relationships, or relationships that deteriorate, causing people to disengage. Because we are human, there will always be gaps between our expectations and experiences with others; the key is how we manage them.

If you are stuck working on a team or in an organization that struggles to close gaps, there is often little you can do to drive change.

On highly functional teams, people become masters of identifying and closing gaps before relationships deteriorate. In mediocre or worse organizations, issues are often kicked around under the table like dead fish, making the atmosphere increasingly unbearable, and no one is dealing with the problems. If you are stuck working on a team or in an organization that struggles to close gaps, there is often little you can do to drive change. But you can develop the habit of recognizing the issues and formulating what you would do to close them. This serves two purposes. First, by thinking about the causes and solutions, you shift from an emotionally charged reaction to a mode of critical thinking. That immediately reduces stress and increases understanding. And, if the opportunity does present itself, you’re ready to help with constructive input. Second, as you work toward becoming “unstuck”, cultivating the habit of identifying gaps and formulating solutions is a hallmark of exceptional leaders and will serve you well in future interviews and roles.>

Lemons to Lemonade

Being stuck in a job that feels like it lacks purpose or with people that make your work life miserable, sucks. The reality is that in the short term, there is often little you can do to change the external environment and people. Sour is as sour does. Nevertheless, you can choose how you experience the work and deal with the dysfunction. Finding your path and aligning it with the purpose of the organization, recognizing and supporting your core psychological needs at work, and developing the habit of thinking critically about experience-expectation gaps helps you deal better with being stuck. Equally importantly, you will put yourself on the road to becoming unstuck. Returning to my friend Beth’s question: when in a sour situation, focus your energy on making some excellent lemonade.

Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurleyhttps://www.xmetryx.com/
Dr. Hurley, the co-founder of Xmetryx, has deep expertise in team science and team leader development, and his passion is inspiring leaders to craft extraordinary teams. Jeb’s career journey began on new product innovation teams in Europe and Asia. This led to GM / VP and CEO roles at companies ranging from Fortune 500 to VC backed startups, as well as co-founding 3 software companies. After nearly 30 years in VP, GM, and CEO roles, Dr. Hurley spent five years walking in the shoes of today's team leaders while earning his doctorate in leadership. He experienced what was and wasn't working on the front lines and combined his research with insights from the best minds in the field of team science. His TRM workshop is based upon his groundbreaking research into human motivation, employee engagement, and team performance. Jeb regularly speaks and writes about team leadership and improving employee wellbeing and is the author of Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams, as well as The ONE Habit: The Ultimate Guide to Increasing Engagement & Building Highly-Effective Teams. Jeb has published over 50 articles on team leadership and is a Columnist and Featured Contributor for BIZCATALYST 360°. See Jeb's full bio, and connect with him, on LinkedIn.
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