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Why Is It So Hard To Make That Job Change?

In order for change to occur, cognitive dissonance is essential. What is cognitive dissonance? Cognitive dissonance is a conflict between two ideas that one holds at the same time in one's mind.
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So last week we looked at how "commitment" is different from wishful thinking about leaving your job. Yet, even when people feel very strongly that they hate their jobs and do not want to stay there, they somehow cannot leave. Why is that? What keeps us rooted to miserable choices? Paradoxically, it is our unwillingness to fully acknowledge that misery that keeps us trapped. Details of these processes are outlined in: but for a brief summary, here is why.

In order for change to occur, cognitive dissonance is essential. What is cognitive dissonance? Cognitive dissonance is a conflict between two ideas that one holds at the same time in one's mind: "I want to leave my job but a new job is frightening". When dissonance exists in this state in one's mind, the ability to choose between two alternatives is very difficult. Even more difficult, is the choice between leaving one's job and not knowing what one is going to do: here the choice is between your current job and an unknown one. As long as your commitment is to the current job, your brain will come up with reasons to support that choice. People often wait for that time to come when they can make the commitment to leave "rationally" so that they can feel good about the change, but this time often never does come.

What is required is for people to choose to be committed to leaving. When attention is fixed on this task, the likelihood of doing it is much greater, even when the choice is initially unknown. In fact, brain research has shown that when we make a choice, the rewarding effect of that choice on our brains is greater after we make that choice than before we do this. It is as though our brains seek to affirm for us that our new choice is better. In fact, it does appear that we feel better about our choices after we make them than before. The balance between rationalizing a bad choice and making a commitment prior to being certain is what keeps most people stuck.

So, based on this, what can you do if you want to leave your job but "can't"?
1. Recognize that your inability to leave your job results from your being more positive about your current job than leaving, even if you hate it. Examine why leaving is so threatening to you. Is it unfamiliarity? Or is it the unknown?

2. The brain handles risk much better than it handles ambiguity. In fact, ambiguity activates the brain's anxiety center (amygdala) more than risk. The difference between these two concepts is that risk involves probabilities whereas ambiguity is vague. When trying to leave your old job for a new one, be concrete about new possibilities and the associated risks rather than keeping this as an abstraction in your mind. A coach can help you stay focused on this.

3. For change to occur, how can you make sure that you actually make the move? To activate that left frontal cortex of your brain and to bring you to commitment to your actions, you need to have a large "spreading of alternatives". That is, to resolve the discomfort you feel between two difficult choices (staying at a terrible current job and leaving to an unknown job market), the difference in positivity between your new job and the negativity of your old job needs to be great enough. The message: don't avoid or rationalize why you want to leave your old job. Bored? Face it. Underpaid? Face it. Uninspired? Face it. Unhappy? Face it. The more you are able to tolerate facing how bad things are, the greater the chance that you will be able to leave your job.

4. But what if leaving was a bad mistake? What if there are no jobs out there? What if you are just being impulsive? These are good questions to ask, but they need to be faced truthfully. Can you really be impulsive if you have felt this way for two years? If you are committed consciously or unconsciously to your change being a mistake, it will be this. Instead, focus on how to make it a success. Take small or large steps to help you get to where you want to get, depending on your level of comfort. The answer is not the same for any two people, but with some diligent thought, it will be easier. Nobody can tell you what to do. But you also need to weigh your current stress level, productivity, and quality of life with the fear of not knowing. Oftentimes, anticipating a storm is much worse than being in it, as long as you can be careful and considerate when you are in it.

5. If you are uncomfortable, then you are in the right place. Change without discomfort or cognitive dissonance is impossible.

But how do you get to action and what if you are stuck? We will outline some basic principles next week, but for some people, support by a coach or career professional will make all the difference.

If you are interested in understanding applications of brain science to personal or professional career or other changes, you may consider the workshop: The Neuroscience of Change and Transformation: Executive Coaching Tools for Embracing a New Era (