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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

3 Things to Ask Yourself if You're Unhappy at Work and Unsure What to Do Next

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If you’ve ever dreamed about speaking your mind to your horrible boss and then walking out, head held high, you’re not alone. Enticing as it is to fantasize about sticking it to the man (or woman) who’s largely responsible for making your life miserable, few of us actually act on these impulses—and for good reason. Burning bridges and acting without a modicum of professionalism isn’t recommended.

And so, whether it’s a bad manager or a disorganized company with a questionable mission, we stay. We’re essentially in limbo, not happy but not quite miserable enough to leave. We sit in meetings, mentally rehearsing our parting shots to our sarcastic boss, grumpy co-workers, and high-maintenance customers. After all, they’re obviously the problem, right?

Sometimes it’s as cut and dry as that, but it’s not always the case. Blaming other people or the company itself for your dissatisfaction without ever stopping to consider if the problem is you is a dangerous move. And so is just quitting your job if you haven’t fully thought things through.

Over the past decade of assisting professionals in transitioning to new roles, I’ve confirmed that career happiness (or lack thereof) depends on a number of different factors—it’s not always about good or bad co-workers.

To help you get a more complete picture, I’ve developed a three-part framework to help you decide if, in the infamous words of the Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Part 1: What’s the Problem?

What tasks, activities, and projects occupy most of my day? If I were performing those same activities with different people within my same company, would I be happy? What if I were performing those activities with the same team in a different organization?

Sometimes unhappiness in one area (you sit in an extremely loud area of the open office, your regional manager is intolerable) colors your entire work experience, and before you know it, you're going from, “I hate the quarterly supervisor’s visit” to “I hate my job! I need to get out of here.”

But what happens when you put your emotions (and their source) in perspective. Realizing you love your team but hate taking customer complaints is valuable info, as is knowing that your daily commute is causing you mental anguish.

Of course, if your list includes literally everything about your job—your micromanaging boss, the work itself, the CEO, the location, your compensation, limited perks, and so on—then it may really not be you that’s the problem

Part 2: How Long Has the Problem Persisted?

When I think back over the past six to 12 months, are there similar patterns of unhappiness? Have I always been unhappy in this position, or is this new? If I haven’t always felt this way, can I trace my unhappiness to a particular incident?

There are bound to be ups and downs no matter where you are. If you’re an accountant, tax time’s always going to be a stressful period. If you’re a teacher, quarterly progress reports may always make you slightly crazed. If your team is being restructured, you can expect to feel some turmoil during the transition.

If your dissatisfaction’s relatively new, it may be a blip on the radar that’ll resolve itself over time, particularly if you can trace your discontent to a temporary situation, like a co-worker going on leave, or a new boss bumbling along as he finds his way.

Sometimes, though, your job is just a bad fit. If you’ve never really been satisfied in your current position, expecting things to “get better” on their own is probably unrealistic. And if there’s nothing that you can do personally to make your situation better, it probably is a signal that it’s time to leave.

Part 3: What Do You Want?

What would my ideal work experience—activities, team members, company—look like? If I were in charge of this company, what three changes would I make immediately?

By comparing your uncensored “ideal” to your “reality,” you can identify mismatches. Once you see those gaps, ask yourself, “How likely is it that this will change for the better?”

If your first move as company president would be to fire the entire management staff and re-create the company’s product line, you’re in for an uphill battle. But if your top priority would be to pipe music in the employee cafeteria, you’ve got a better chance of finding lasting happiness at your current company, because your disconnects are relatively minor.

Before you give up on your current company, see what you can salvage. It’s often much easier to transfer to a new role within your same team or company, than to start over from square one somewhere else.

I’d love to say there’s an absolute “right” and “wrong” time to leave your company, but it’s not that easy. Choosing whether to quit is a multi-faceted decision that requires some serious reflection. These questions are a great start.

Compare your reality with your dreams, and see how far off you are. The “ideal” position for you is out there somewhere, but finding it may be like moving across a chessboard: You might have to make a few lateral moves before you get headed in the right direction.

Still trying to figure out your path? Ditch the confusion for clarity by downloading The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Career That Fits You.

Here at The Muse, we love introducing you to people who can boost your career. We are working with this contributor on an affiliate basis (meaning we earn a little money when you choose to use their services), but rest assured that we don’t just work with anyone. When it comes to articles like this, we chose to work with this coach not because he wanted a Muse byline, but because his advice was truly awesome. Here’s to finding the career of your dreams!

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