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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Tell Your Boss You're Not Happy at Work

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In an ideal world, our jobs would be challenging, engaging, and rewarding all the time. But, as I’m sure you’re already aware, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes this calls for a drastic change—like finding a new job—but other times, it may just take a small tweak to get your career back on track to a more satisfying path.

So, how, exactly does one do that? Well, one incredibly simple way that’s worked well for me might surprise you: Tell your boss you’re not happy.

I know, it probably goes against everything you’ve ever been taught about moving ahead in your career, but take it from me, sometimes bosses have no idea their employees aren’t totally loving their work. And, if you do it right, both you and your boss will thank you for speaking up. Here’s how to do it.

Make a List

I love lists. They help organize your thoughts, and they provide a nice outline for tough discussions.

I found them especially helpful a few years ago, when I decided to approach my boss to let her know I wasn’t totally loving my work. I’d been working for the company for a few years and had loved my job until our company started to go through several major mergers. I knew part of my dissatisfaction was related to the mergers, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. My job description hadn’t changed, and I wasn’t working unreasonably long hours, so it was hard to place what was wrong. So, I started jotting down everything, big or small, that made me twitch each day, for about a week.

When I reviewed my list, some things immediately popped out at me. I was now working with a new group, which was located in a different time zone, and because we had certain deadlines to meet, I noticed I wasn’t going to the gym or taking lunches as often as I used to. Other things weren’t quite so obvious—at least to me—which ended up being really useful when the time came to chat with my boss.

Once you’ve done that, it’s time to:

Plan a Meeting

No boss likes to hear a laundry list of what’s wrong with the job or the company. So, chances are, if you simply present your list of “does not like,” your boss will view it as complaints or demands he or she can’t meet.

So, after jotting down your list, it’s a good idea to make a new one for your discussion with your boss. Review your grievances, see if there are any themes that pop out, and summarize them into agenda items. For example, if you’re always eating lunch at your desk or constantly cancelling plans with friends because you’re stuck working late, put “maintaining a healthy work-life balance” as one of the points you’d like to discuss. Whenever possible, try to frame your list in positive terms, and from a perspective of solutions rather than simply complaints (more on that in a bit).

Once you have your list tidied up, it’s time to call that meeting. Now, you might be tempted to rush over to your boss and tell him or her you want to “talk.” But trust me, if you don’t want your boss to go into crisis mode, do not do this. Bosses are hard-wired to think something’s terribly wrong whenever an employee approaches them and says, “there’s something I’d like to talk to you about.” Instead, find a smooth segue by approaching your manager immediately after a team meeting or after chatting over coffee in the break room. Say you have some ideas on “improving your turnaround time on a project,” or “boosting morale around here,” you would like his or her input, and you’d love to schedule a time to chat. Now, your boss is primed to not only hear your ideas, but to share his or her own, as well.

When you sit down for the conversation, I recommend one of three approaches:

1. Suggest a Solution

How you tell your boss you’re feeling blasé about work is a delicate matter. You don’t want to come across as overly negative, but you also don’t want to sugarcoat your dissatisfaction, either.

So, a great way to approach the conversation is to pair your concerns with suggestions on how to solve them in a way that’s mutually beneficial. For example, if your lunch hour has been hijacked by a meeting with the team in London, mention to your boss that having the meeting an hour earlier might help keep the team focused, as everyone won’t be watching the clock as their stomachs growl, and the London team won’t have to stay so late. Keep the focus on what you can do to improve the situation. Your boss will appreciate the thoughtfulness of your suggestions (and, um, hopefully get the message that your much-needed lunch hour is being sacrificed).

2. Solicit Advice

Not totally sure how to solve the problem? That’s OK—you can use the meeting as an opportunity to ask your boss for advice.

Let’s say, for example, you can’t stand working with Bob in accounting due to his terrible dental hygiene habits. Mention you’re having some challenges working with Bob, and ask for suggestions on how you can manage the relationship better. Fill your boss in on the tactics you’ve already tried, but didn’t seem to work (like suggesting to Bob that email communication works better for you for record-keeping purposes), then ask to brainstorm a few more ideas. The idea is to make your boss aware of the situation so he or she can help you find a solution, not to grouse about Bob’s bad breath.

3. Ask for Help

This one might sound tough, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need—especially if you’re not exactly sure what’s getting you down on the job. Let your manager know you’re not feeling as engaged as you have been previously, and you’d like his or her help getting your groove back. Mention your list, and get the conversation going about what you’ve noticed around the office and with your role.

Keep the discussion as positive as possible, making sure the focus is not on the fact that you’re unhappy, but that you’re trying to get back on top again. Your boss will appreciate the commitment, and after chatting with you for a while, he or she will have some insight on what motivates you—or doesn’t—and will be better equipped to help guide you back to a happy place.

None of us love our jobs all the time, but if you aren’t into it most of the time, that usually spells trouble. Getting to the bottom of what’s irking you at work isn’t easy, but with some careful reflection and honest discussions with your boss, you’ll hopefully find yourself falling back in love with your work.