The first step when you’re feeling stuck, according to John Lees, career strategist and author of How To Get A Job You Love (McGraw-Hill, £12.99), is to see if you can fix your current job. ‘A lot of people go to the job market far too early, using up all their best contacts without knowing what they’re looking for beyond wanting to escape the job they’re in.’ So he suggests brainstorming how you could negotiate your current deal, then talk to your boss.
‘Start by asking yourself some basic questions: What parts of my job do I enjoy? What parts do I not enjoy? How can I improve that balance? Do I want more responsibility? Could I ask to join a particular team, or ask for more recognition, more training, more flexible working hours or more support? There are different ways of fixing the job you’re already in. When we’re feeling stuck, we tend to focus on what’s not working. It’s better to talk to your boss armed with suggestions.’
Think outside the box
Even if you’re convinced that what you want is a career change, such drastic action might not be necessary. Sometimes I fantasise about being a criminal lawyer, I tell Lees. Surely that really would involve retraining? ‘Yes, but you should first ask yourself what it is about that career that intrigues you. There are some obvious ways you could bring a fascination for that subject into your current job.’ Options for me might include writing about crime, injustice or legal affairs. Or writing a detective series of novels or short stories. In general, what we yearn for offers valuable clues about how to make peace with the career we’re already in. For example, if your fantasy is to run your own business, perhaps a first step might be asking your boss to let you get more involved in sales, budgets or product innovation.
When looking at fulfilment at work, one key element is understanding core strengths. In simple terms, a strength isn’t just something we’re good at; it’s something that allows us to thrive and become our best self. Vanessa King, psychologist at Action for Happiness, has studied positive psychology, a field that pioneers using strengths to enhance wellbeing. ‘We know from the research that when people are using their core strengths they’re more confident, less stressed, more resilient and more likely to achieve their goals,’ says King.
So how can we identify strengths? There are several books and online tests that can help you do this, but King sums it up, ‘Strengths come naturally to us; the areas we’re drawn to and can learn easily. The key thing is that they’re energising and that we’re motivated towards doing them. They’re our core capacities for thinking, feeling and being. At heart, these are the qualities that are best about us and can contribute most to the world around us. It’s important to understand that although we can develop many different skills, a skill is not necessarily a strength.’
In fact, King believes that at work, if we get known for skills that are not our core strengths, that can contribute to us feeling stuck. ‘I trained as an accountant and I can set up and organise Excel spreadsheets,’ King says. ‘I don’t mind doing it, but it doesn’t play to my strengths. My key strengths are curiosity, creativity, humour, strategic thinking and positivity. Those things were not that useful in accountancy, which is all about setting up and following the rules.’
‘Once you discover what your strengths are, you can look at ways you might use them more,’ says Krish Surroy, an executive strengths coach. ‘So, for example, if one of your top five strengths is developing others, and you work in HR, you’re obviously already using that a lot in your job. But if you work in admin, you might realise that you would be very good at mentoring new starters or overseeing staff training.’
Making the most of your strengths doesn’t necessarily have to involve talking to your boss. ‘Knowing your strengths can help you manage your own career. It can give you a sense of what kind of work will fulfil you. It can help if you’re feeling stuck at work, because it’s always far better to play to your strengths than waste time trying to overcome your weaknesses.’
What we do in our spare time can also provide valuable clues as to what our strengths are. ‘For example, we might naturally enjoy organising parties and events, but at work, no-one really knows about our finely honed organisational skills. Sometimes we have to take the initiative to let people know what strengths we have to offer,’ says King.
Obviously, at some point in this process, you are going to have to talk to your boss, a prospect that, depending on the scenario, can seem so daunting that putting yourself through interviews for a new job seems far preferable. How can we overcome these fears and ask for what we really want?
Margaret Neale is co-author of Getting More Of What You Want (Profile, £12.99), and a professor at Stanford University. She points out that women are perfectly justified in feeling uncomfortable about negotiating. ‘If a woman wants to negotiate with her boss, even if she uses the exact same words as a man, she is much more likely to be perceived as greedy and demanding. Women are socially influenced to believe that part of our role is to make other people feel good. So we feel that if we negotiate, we’re not a good person. Women will often behave in a way to increase their “liking” quotient, rather than their “competence” quotient.’ Research shows that women have much lower expectations about their chances of success when they go in to negotiate. No surprise then that given how unpleasant and challenging we find it, we often decide it’s actually not worth the trouble.
This might all sound bleak, but Neale’s research shows that there are simple ways to work round it to get more of what we want and need. The first step, she asserts, is to upgrade our expectations. ‘Expectations have a very powerful psychological effect because they drive our behaviour. If we have high expectations, we expect more and we generally get more, on average.’
So, that said, what is the best way to ask for what we want? ‘Most people, when they walk into a negotiation, are already putting on the battle armour, ready for a fight. The typical mindset is: “I want something that you don’t want to give me”. And remember, expectations drive behaviour, so if you go in expecting a battle, you’ll probably get one.’
Talk the talk
Neale prescribes a more collaborative, problem-solving approach. ‘Before you go in there, think about what might cause your boss to say yes. Why does what you want help your counterpart? How does it solve a problem of theirs? You’re looking for a solution that helps them, but also sees you better off than the alternatives available to you, and better off had you not negotiated.’
Say you want a payrise? Neale gives this advice. ‘First, look at justifications for why you should get a raise. Do you know how much your expertise is worth? Not just the market value of the job, but what you personally bring to it. Did you recently undergo more training or do particularly well on a project? Get your ducks in a row before you start negotiating. By the way, if you use ultimatums like, “If I don’t get a raise, I’m going to leave”, you’d better be prepared to quit.’
Crucially, Neale advises against negotiating on single issues, such as a payrise alone. ‘It’s much better to negotiate a package; it feels more collaborative and suggests more about how the whole organisation will benefit. So you might go in and talk about your recent performance, with specific examples, and compared with X or Y in this organisation, how you would like to propose a new package. And the ‘package’ is not only about a higher salary, but other resources that allow you to do your job better.’ The phrase ‘other resources’ sounds unsexy, until brainstorming throws up ideas like a new computer, language classes, working one day a week from home, a sabbatical, gym membership or a work placement in New York.
Why does discussing things in more collaborative terms work? ‘For a woman negotiating, if we go in representing other people’s interests, or the common good, rather than feeling like we’re focusing on our own selfish ends, research shows that women actually outperform men. Women are great at negotiating for the interests of other people – they get between 14 and 23 per cent better deals. The thing we struggle with is the social pressure we experience when we negotiate for ourselves.’
So Neale suggests we make our pitch by focusing either on the good of the whole team or, if that doesn’t feel right, focus on the good of all the other women who come to the company after you. ‘Think of yourself as a pioneer, fighting for the women who will be paid less in the future if you don’t negotiate for them. That makes you a trailblazer at the heart of change.’
As with any deal, Neale reminds us that we also need to know when to walk away. ‘It’s best to prepare for your negotiation by doing your research and exploring alternatives. What other options do you have? The more people want us, the more attractive we become, just like dating.’
Lees also suggests examining all available options and, crucially, the best-case scenario is to do this long before you’re desperate to quit. ‘Consider new avenues of interest and go and talk to people doing that job. What’s great is, it takes you into an incremental journey of gradual change. Typically, it can take between 12 and 18 months to make a big job change. And if you don’t explore the options, you’re just daydreaming, and daydreaming is a great excuse for inactivity. By sending out just one email or having one conversation, you can change your energy. Instead of feeling stuck and frustrated, it puts the whole focus on the future.’
Get more of what you want by Margaret Neale
Ask: is this a situation where I can influence the outcome? I need to weigh up the benefits against the costs.
Ask: what am I really trying to achieve? How much is my job really worth? What are the interests and preferences of my counterpart/boss? (We often forget about the latter.)
Engage with your counterpart/boss. Remember, you are bringing information to the table that the other person doesn’t have, be it your unique perspective on the job you do or a reminder of the skills you have.
If you try to negotiate issue by issue – payrise, annual leave, working hours – every issue becomes a win-or-lose situation. If you present a package, you can trade off among all the issues and propose alternative solutions. Use words like ‘if’ and ‘then’ – if you give me this, then I’ll give you that. Then everyone feels like a winner.