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.
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.