When I interview executives for corporate change management or improvement projects, they often talk about feeling that they’re not making or seeing enough progress. Indeed, according to Gallop’s 2017 State of the Workplace report, fully two-thirds of U.S. employees feel disengaged at work.
But it’s not necessary to feel trapped in “career malaise,” stuck in the same tasks and facing the same hassles. I spoke with Dorie Clark, who teaches for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out. Here’s her advice about what executives can do if, despite their intelligence and competence, they end up feeling like they have little choice or control over their jobs and career trajectories.
Take Small Steps to Prevent Feelings of Helplessness
Clark suggested that people can develop a sense of learned helplessness if they feel ignored or rebuffed by their bosses after early attempts to make changes to unsatisfying situations. “When people are consistently stressed, their IQ drops such that their sense of possibility and available options constrict drastically. Disengaged workers may believe that their options are so severely limited that they stop looking for improvements, they stop trying, and even things that might be possible if they were a little creative, stop seeming like realistic possibilities.”
Nonetheless, most people can pull themselves out of the depths of helplessness and hopelessness by taking concrete, positive steps, starting by restricting their exposure to negative views of the workplace. According to Clark, the people you choose as work friends have significant impact on your own views and behaviors. If your primary bond comes from complaining about work, “you create an echo chamber that reinforces negative perceptions and the feeling of powerlessness. If your pals are all grousing too, you’re digging yourself further into the hole.”
She explained that it can be very hard to think your way into change, but that “if there are very small actions you can take to get quick wins and prove to yourself that your actions can change things, that’s more powerful than trying to psych yourself up to change things.” She suggested asking your boss for some relatively small change “that would be hard for them to say no to as a pilot. See if you can get a positive result. That can give you momentum.”
If You’re Stuck in Too Much Change
When I’m helping clients with change management initiatives, they sometimes complain about being stuck in perpetual chaos, which can be as distressing as no change at all. Clark recommended that an outside perspective from a trusted colleague or advisor could be helpful. If they confirm that this level of madness will be over in a month, ask yourself if you can be okay for just one more month.
But if your advisors verify “that you’ll be suffering the same way for 5 years. We all want to maintain some degree of autonomy or control, so [ask yourself], ‘Even if the environment is changing, are there ways I can create more sense of structure or control for myself?’ Maybe there are ways to create consistent rituals or routines, like setting your schedule in a different way. For example, ‘No matter what, I’ll do yoga at 7am, so no matter what happens at work, I’ll be starting off the day in a good way.’”
No Grand Vision Needed to Move Forward
Some people feel stuck because their boss is a micromanager, their job is perpetually changing in ways that don’t feel good or even because they’re so successful in their current position that their boss doesn’t want to promote them to the next thing. But other employees feel stuck because they don’t have a grand picture of their future and yet there’s still so much societal pressure to follow your passion.
Clark agreed that, “If you have a vision already, it can be a North Star to propel you forward. Some people are top-down, big vision people and it comes naturally to them. But others are more tactical, ground-up thinkers and it’s harder for them to know what their vision is and they end up stymied. If you’re one of those people, identify the best next step. If you need to drive from New York City to Washington, DC in the fog, you can get there if you have the Capitol in your GPS. But if you don’t have that, you can also get there by going five feet at a time.”
Take Charge of Yourself to Get Some Traction
There are a variety of levers you can use to lift yourself out of a rut at work: a new search for opportunity within your current job or company, a different approach to self-management and a new view of your future. What’s most important, according to Clark, is not to let being stuck become an ongoing part of your identity, “because you do not want to end up as someone who thinks of yourself as the kind of person who is stuck, as if this is a permanent part of your identity, because this breeds a kind of helplessness and eventually a kind of hopelessness. The key is to take charge of your circumstances and take action, no matter how small.”
I am a management consultant and executive coach. For 30 years, I’ve been helping organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses like American Express, Girl Scouts, Staples, Highlights and Janssen Pharmaceuticals solve their thorniest problems in organizational performance, talent management and leadership development while strengthening their top and bottom lines in the process. Some of these relationships have lasted for 25 years! I was honored to deliver a TEDx on “Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It,” and write for Harvard Business Review and Entrepreneur, as well as for my own Workplace Wisdom blog.