We all feel disheartened about our jobs from time to time. But how do you know the difference between ordinary, occasional dissatisfaction and a genuine mismatch? How do you know when you're truly ready to move on? And how do you then get out gracefully?
What the Experts Say
Quitting a job can negatively impact your career and disrupt your personal life, but staying in an undesirable situation can be worse.
"I find a lot of people paralysed by their unhappiness with their current reality," says Leonard Schlesinger, president of Babson College and co-author of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future. It's often easier to stay put.
"Most people stay too long in bad jobs because the corporate world is geared towards keeping us in roles, not matching individuals up with their ideal roles," says Daniel Gulati, a tech entrepreneur and coauthor of Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders.
But don't let yourself get stuck. Here's how to decide whether it's really time to quit and how to leave effectively if so:
Watch for Signals
Start by figuring out whether you lack excitement about the bigger picture or the day-to-day activities. "When people ask me how things are going, my standard response is that I love what I'm doing, which doesn't mean that I like it on any given day," says Schlesinger. Here are some signs that something larger is going on:
You keep promising yourself you'll quit but never do. Gulati says that these false starts are often indicative of an underlying problem.
You don't want your boss's job. If you can't stand the idea of having your manager's job, you need to think hard about what's next. Chances are that "your hungrier peers will soon pass you, creating more job dissatisfaction," says Gulati.
You're consistently underperforming. If you keep trying to get better but you're not seeing results, it may be time to consider whether you have what it takes, or if your boss and colleagues value what you have to offer. Schlesinger warns that sometimes you're up against an impossible task — the job is too big, the politics are too tricky, there aren't enough resources, or you don't have the required skills and experience.
If you notice one or more of these signs, pay attention and ask yourself whether the costs of staying in the job are reasonable and acceptable to you. It may be that the "price of admission" — opportunity loss, emotional toll — aren't worth it.
Test the Waters
To further explore if you're ready to leave, run a few experiments to assess whether your perception is reality. "It's better to rely on information gathered from live interaction with people rather than spinning around in your own chair," says Schlesinger. He suggests having an honest conversation with your boss about how you're perceived and what you're capable of achieving in your role. If you think your manager wouldn't be open to that kind of discussion, Gulati advises looking at your last two annual performance reviews. "Do the comments make you feel empowered or disheartened? If your performance is stagnating despite your best efforts, you might want to quit before further reputational damage is done," he says. You can also test whether there's a mismatch by putting your hat in the ring the next time your boss has a high-profile piece of work to be done. If you're overlooked, it may be that he doesn't appreciate your skills and it's time to move on.
Know the Risks
Before making a final decision, make sure you've assessed the downsides. Even if you're certain you're in the wrong job, there are risks to leaving — you may damage existing relationships, lose needed income or blemish your resume. According to Gulati, people usually get 10 chances to quit a job in their lifetime, which works out to an average of once every four years. "If you're changing things up much more than that, companies will start looking at you as a serial job-hopper," he says. This will hurt your professional reputation and your chances of getting jobs in the future. "This could become especially problematic if you find a role you really want but can't get a foot in the door because of your dicey resume," says Gulati.
Always Leave Toward Something
You can mitigate some of the risks by deciding what's next before you leave. Both experts agree that it's better to have at least an inkling of what you want to do, if not a full-fledged plan. "People should quit to secure a positive role, not on an emotional whim to avoid a negative situation. If you truly hate what you're doing, you should absolutely leave but not before you identify something that you have a good chance of loving in the future," says Gulati.
Scheslinger adds: "I wouldn't leave without some sort of plan, whether it's a set of experiments to confirm what you're excited about doing next or a conscious strategy to make something happen."
Of course, that's not always possible. "Many people leave it open ended, especially if they're financially secure or craving an uninterrupted period of introspection," says Gulati.
Don't Run Out the Door
You may fantasise about telling your boss to take this job and shove it, but that will only give you short-term relief and could possibly ruin your professional life. "There's nothing worse than taking a bad situation and leaving it badly. How you leave is as important as how you arrive," says Schlesinger. Discuss the decision with people who matter in your life: spouse, children, friends. Ask mentors or former bosses for advice. Most importantly, Schlesinger recommends, "Look at it from your boss's point of view and think about how you can communicate a process for disengagement that is respectful of the situation." Gulati agrees: "Once you've decided to quit and have a last day in mind, you should let your immediate supervisor know and follow due process."
Principles to Remember
- Ask yourself whether the job can be done, whether you can do it, and if the costs of doing it are too high
- Run short experiments to test whether your current situation is unfixable
- Have some sense of what you want to do next before you quit
- Stay if you don't want the job your boss or another superior is doing — you need to have a vision of what will come next
- Burn bridges no matter how dissatisfied you are — it could ruin your professional reputation
- Make quitting a habit — you'll blemish your resume
How to Is it Time to Quit Your Job? [Harvard Business Review]