From Dead End to Takeoff

An unhappy job situation can be turned to your advantage

Dead end road sign against a stormy background with lightning and copy space. Dirty and angled sign adds to the drama.

By Tamara E. Holmes

When Dele Lowman Smith landed her first job at a nonprofit organization, it wasn’t what she thought it would be. While the organization had a compelling mission, the job itself didn’t challenge her, and she was so bored at times that she would give herself additional things to do, such as reorganizing the filing system.

When her boredom reached a tipping point, she started job hunting, but nothing seemed to be the right fit. After stewing in frustration, Lowman Smith finally decided that if she couldn’t find the perfect job, she would create it. She noticed that the nonprofit was struggling to retain loyal clients, and she had a passion for customer service, so she volunteered to work with younger staff members on their customer interactions.

Her boss went for the idea. “I truly felt like I had a new job,” Lowman Smith says. “I was spending time doing things 
I loved that were also bringing value to the organization.” She ended up staying an additional two years and gaining new skills that have helped her throughout her career journey. One of the greatest lessons she learned was that no matter how much you hate your job, chances are you have the power to make the situation better.

The path to happy
For many professional women, career satisfaction is elusive. According to Gallup, in 2015 only 32 percent of American workers felt engaged at work. While many people respond to job dissatisfaction by seeking greener pastures—3 million Americans quit their jobs in August 2016 alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—you don’t have to be one of them, career experts say. Instead, you can often take steps to create a better job experience, one that is more in alignment with your professional goals.

The key to transforming a frustrating work environment is to focus on things you really like about your job and try to do more of them, says Kerry Hannon, author of Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness. “Raise your hand and ask your supervisor if there are other ways to tap into that skill,” Hannon says.

Lowman Smith, who now coaches other women through their career challenges as the founder of Atlanta-based BOLD MOVE Consulting LLC, suggests looking for the sweet spot between what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and what challenges your company is grappling with.
Although shaking up your work routine benefits you personally, there’s a professional benefit as well, says Lisa Skeete Tatum, cofounder of Landit, an online community that connects professional women. “Not only will you reenergize yourself but you can also get bonus points for taking the initiative, being a proactive leader, and increasing the capacity of your team.”

Even if you don’t see a clear path forward with your employer, you could use your current job to help you better prepare for the next one. “Take a step back and look at the broader vision for your career,” Lowman Smith says. Identify the skills you’ll need to advance someplace else and look around for ways in which you can get experience where you currently are. “Think where do I want to go long-term, and how I can make the best use of this time that I’m here to move me closer to that goal?” Lowman Smith adds.

Selling your new role
Of course, it’s one thing to want to take on additional duties and quite another to get your manager to buy into the idea. Once you figure out what you want to do and why you’re the person to do it, you have to convince others that it will benefit them.

Focus on explaining how you will make your boss’s job easier and add value to the team. Pay close attention to the culture of your organization and the personality and preferences of your managers, says Lowman Smith. For example, if your boss isn’t keen on change, you might suggest several meetings to keep her or him abreast of your progress.

Also, try to quantify how your contribution can help to solve the company’s problem. For example, you might show how your actions could save the company money or bring in more revenue.
If your manager seems hesitant, offer to try things out temporarily to see how they work, Hannon says. Finally, make it clear that your current work obligations won’t suffer. In fact, use your past performance to your advantage by making the case that you’ve already been successful doing X, so you have the chops to succeed at Y.

A backup plan for happiness
While crafting a more appealing job description is ideal, that’s not always possible. However, career experts point to other ways you can infuse more happiness into a job that gets you down.
Gain some clarity. Journal about what you like about your job, suggests Hannon. It doesn’t have to be the work itself; it could be your relationships with your coworkers, the company’s mission, or the fact that you get to learn new things or travel. Then, write down what you don’t like. Once you know where you stand, you can think of some possible solutions, Hannon says.

Change your mind-set. When you’re feeling overworked or undervalued, it’s easy to think of yourself as just a cog in the machine. However, take a page from the Oprah Winfreys of the world. “Think of yourself as an entrepreneur and your employer as your biggest client,” Hannon says. “It gives you a sense of empowerment and autonomy.” Getting out from behind your desk can also make a big difference in your mind-set and energy level, says Skeete Tatum. Try shifting to walking meetings or setting your fitness monitor to remind you to move every hour. You may even need a bit more time off to recharge. A vacation can leave you rested and with a new perspective.

Improve your relationships. If you find yourself in an environment that has no team spirit, that can provoke feelings of frustration, says Michael Owhoko, author of Career Frustration in the Workplace. A 2014 study by LinkedIn found that 46 percent of professionals said their work friends were important to their happiness at work. Look for ways to bond with colleagues by starting a walking group at lunch or inviting a different colleague to coffee every week.

Learn something new. Boredom is one of the biggest reasons people feel frustrated at work, Hannon says. Sign up for continuing education courses or professional development programs offered by your employer. When you start to acquire new knowledge—even if it’s not directly related to your job—it recharges you. “Remain focused on your personal dreams beyond the company,” Owhoko says.

Set better boundaries. When you take on too much, you are overwhelmed and you may make more mistakes, Lowman Smith says. To avoid that, learn to say no and to let your manager know if your workload gets to be intolerable. Don’t be afraid to ask for a more reasonable deadline or to suggest a more efficient way to get a project done.

In some circumstances, it could be better to leave a job. For example, if you work in a hostile environment or the job is beginning to affect your health, moving on might be the best option, Skeete Tatum says.

But more often than not, you can do something not only to make a bad situation better, but to turn it to your advantage. “It’s a lot about believing in yourself and giving yourself a faith lift,” Hannon says. “It’s easy to get stuck in the moment, but shake it up a little. Try some new things.” DW

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, DC–based journalist who writes about diversity and careers.

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