Why You Stay in a Job You Hate
The most popular articles on business sites are generally about finding a new job. It’s estimated that more than 70% of professionals are open to finding their next position. Yet for many people, the prospect of actively searching for a new gig is too daunting to make that jump.
As I wrote about here, there are many good reasons to quit. By leaving a job when you reach a plateau, you don’t stagnate and are more likely to find fulfillment with your work.
If your job is causing you undue stress and chipping away at your self-respect, leaving may preserve your health and well-being.
However, despite the advantages of leaving a job, we come up with all kinds of reasons for staying put. Often, our considerations are more emotional than rational. As behavioral economists like to say, “the emotional tail wags the rational dog.” In other words, we have emotional reasons for staying, and we rationalize them with logic. We reframe our fear of uncertainty into wise financial planning, for example.
All this means that we should take time to reflect on what’s actually holding us back when we know in a deeper place that we should go. The following are common excuses people make for staying put, with some evidence for why they aren’t always what they seem.
I can’t afford it.
If a career move means that you’re leaving money on the table, or redirecting into a career where you’re not as established, you may feel that you can’t afford the change.
As Whitney Johnson points out in Harvard Business Review, the issue with this reasoning is that it neglects to consider the emotional component of our work: “Functionally, your career puts food on the table, pays for your kids’ college, and funds your retirement. Emotionally, consider the satisfaction of doing work you enjoy, or the prestige that comes from holding certain job titles. You need both. I’ve seen people let that emotional need eclipse reason and jump into a new career path without a safety net. I’ve also seen people get so worried about the money that they never make the leap, even when their safety net is strong.”
It’s costing you emotionally to stay in a job that’s unfulfilling. If you have a prospect that will make you happier and not cause a financial strain, then it’s worth considering. And if you can’t monetarily afford to leave your job now, consider how you could use the time to build your network and skills for a future jump. Putting a plan in place with a timeline can be empowering.
If I take a new job, I won’t have job security.
Understandably, this can be a scary prospect. By taking a new job, you don’t have the established history and reputation that you earned with your former employer. But think of getting a new job as an exchange: instead of immediate job security (which you will acquire over time with your new gig), you will gain greater job satisfaction. Greater job satisfaction leads to better performance.
When it’s time to make cuts, high performers rarely get the ax. If you can get yourself to a place where you can truly perform at your best, you will end up with far more job security in the end.
I may dislike my new job even more.
This reason falls into the devil-you-know bucket, and the draw is powerful. Especially if you’ve had a long tenure at your current employer, the risk that comes with the unknown can be paralyzing.
While there’s no way to take away this factor entirely, it can be helpful to make a list of what you are seeking in a new position – before you start interviewing. Include cultural considerations, work style, job content, and advancement potential. Knowing this list well will allow you to concisely tell employers what you’re seeking, and weed out any potential jobs that don’t measure up.
Often we wait to figure this out during the interview process, and can easily overlook our core desires in the frenzy of the job offer. Being firmly planted in what you’re moving to, rather than what you’re leaving, can help mitigate this risk.
If I start interviewing, I may jeopardize my current job.
Being deceptive makes most people very uncomfortable. Even if we dislike our job, we may dislike sneaking around even more. On top of that, we want to keep the job we have and can be concerned about risking it if word gets out that we’re looking.
This is the deepest concern when we’re in the contemplation stage, and then it can easily become an excuse. When people hit the wall and are ready to leave, that fear of discovery becomes a necessary risk.
There are smart ways to go about looking for a new job without raising red flags around the office, e.g., not conducting your job search on company computers. Recruiters wouldn’t be in business if they couldn’t be discrete, and will work with candidates to interview at their convenience. If you post your resume online, some job boards such as TheLadders allow you to block out certain portions of your resume so your employer won’t know you’re actively looking.
If you’re using LinkedIn, you can adjust your privacy settings so those at your current company can’t see all of your networking activity.
Finally, I’ve never heard of an employee actually getting fired for looking around – though I’m sure it’s possible. More often, an employer may try to convince a candidate to stay or offer to help in the process. Fostering amicable endings is good business.
I don’t know what I want to do.
Of all the excuses we make for not making the jump, this one can be hardest. It’s the dreaded white space that we have no idea how to fill, and it takes serious self-reflection to figure out where to start.
The best way to move through this is to start experiencing what’s possible. Have conversations with people in your network who have jobs that you might like. Go out and meet with companies to discover more about them. Start to learn through seeing for yourself.
Also remember that this jump isn’t the only one. I’ve seen many executives take a big leap, then another one shortly thereafter. It’s not indentured servitude. Sometimes one of the best ways to figure out what you do want is by simply trying it. Consider how many people dream of being entrepreneurs only to discover it’s not actually for them once they hang their shingle.
The path to knowing what you want to do can be paved with a few jobs that didn’t quite measure up. All of this is okay. Our careers, like our lives, are ultimately a journey. We learn the most in times of movement – but very little from staying in place.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.
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