Co-authored with Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Rabson.
If you’re reading this you are probably employed. In the United States the unemployment rate is about 4 percent. In Western Europe it’s just above 7 percent. We can debate what the rate really means but in broad terms demand for labor is about as strong as it ever gets.
So why would anyone stay in a job they don’t like?
Usually because they feel they must. There’s a mortgage to pay, medical bills, kids to put through college or simply local market conditions that make finding a substantially better job hard to find. Telling them to ask themselves “Am I happy or am I sad?” doesn’t speak to their central worries. Urging them to pursue enrichment beyond a paycheck isn’t much use when a paycheck is what they need most.
If that’s the case then what are the options? Choice one is resentment; ignore choice one. Choice two is reading the signals and considering your circumstances with the detachment of a professional. You may not be CEO but you always have power and agency.
Read the signals.
Organizations send signals all the time about who succeeds in them and how. Sometimes these signals are conscious, sometimes not.
Elon Musk, for example, once sent an eMail to every employee in the Tesla organization declaring in plain language that communications should flow freely within the company without regard for departments or hierarchy. The note was read as a signal of Tesla’s determination to preserve an entrepreneurial culture even as it became a major automaker, a cry against bigness. It was viewed as tremendously empowering for individuals inside Tesla.
Then this past October Tesla laid off 2 percent of its workforce without notice. They were simply told not to come to work anymore. Not an empowering signal at all.
Smart organizations work on their recruiting brands to tune the signals they send to the talent they hope to attract. Last August, for instance, companies including IBM and Apple realized that serving on President Trump’s strategy-and-policy forum sent the wrong signal to the tech talent they depend on. Fearing damage to their recruitment brand they quit. It was a conscious signal.
Unconscious signals tell another story. They can begin in the interview process. The ambitious candidate wants to win the job. For its part the organization switches into sales mode, too often looking right past “fit.” Both parties may be too eager to close the deal. Signals get scrambled. No wonder life on the job doesn’t always materialize as the parties expect.
An organization might declare it wants movers and shakers yet signal something else by doing things that drive great talent away. Consider Uber drivers, for example, who’ve been signaled in multiple ways that the company thinks they’re disposable. Or consider generations of talented women who correctly read signals of indifference about sexual harassment coming from the top of their organizations notwithstanding HR policies that assured them of the contrary.
Big thinkers on organizational culture usually approve of companies that signal strong identities—Virgin, Southwest Airlines, Patagonia, Goldman Sachs and so on. But there’s a dark side. The cult-like behavior of some organizations can border on a religion: great if you share the faith, condemned to the wilderness if you don’t. Strong people are implicitly signaled to get in line.
If the signals in your organization are flashing red, yeah, you may need a change. You may not feel you’re in a financial position to get up and walk out, but you owe it to yourself to make a plan to go someplace better.
Most of us are more adept than we know at reading signals. The problem to solve is that we don’t always articulate to ourselves what we know and what to do about it. What’s the mechanism that will make change happen?
If you’re feeling insulted by life it can be hard to achieve a detached assessment of your choices. But having the professional maturity to extract yourself from the way you feel about the signals you’re receiving is essential to planning and managing your exit from an unsatisfactory situation.
Start by naming your goal out loud. What is it—more money, better hours, more respect, some sense of vocation? Whatever it is, simply naming it delivers a lift and the energy that comes with it.
A plan will tell you where to channel your energy in pursuit of your goal. A plan will keep you focused if it turns out that achieving your goal takes more time than you’d like. (And perhaps serve as a reminder that you’re still being paid while plotting your next move.)
Try not thinking about work when you leave at the end of the day. Give your spirit a rest, whether you run General Motors or stock shelves at Wal-Mart. If you can’t let go of a bad day and stew endlessly about how much you hate your job that means you’ve lost and the bad job has won. Think instead about the goal you’ve set and the plan you’re making.
Work with integrity. Living otherwise just isn’t healthy. Perform at the top of your ability. We all know this doesn’t always pay off, but it’s the way to bet. It sends the right signals about you, if only to yourself. And that alone will keep you on track.
Other articles by the authors:
“How to Lead a Team and Not be a Jerk.” What matters to the success of a team is not the formal title of leader but the assertion of leadership—which is to say, authority derived not from hierarchy but from the way we behave.
“Favoring the Prepared Mind.” There was a time when Lehman Brothers, Woolworth, PanAm and Kodak were among the colossi of their industries. They were going to live forever. Then they died. So what went wrong? Why do some organizations continue to grow even as they age? The answer is a wide-awake business model.
“Data Isn’t Truth. It’s Signal.” When people are presented with disagreeable facts they tend to double down on their own truth. Regardless of who you voted for in the last election, for example, you were probably complicit in editing data that didn’t suit your preferences—and almost certainly never acknowledged to yourself that you did. But editing the data need not always be a bad thing as long it is conscious. And as long as we understand that data isn’t truth. It’s signal.