Volume 43: Why Do People Stay in Bad Careers?

RoyThree weeks ago, in this series comparing Long-Term Careers to Marriages, I compared the reasons people get divorced to the reasons people leave long-term careers with a company.

In some cases, one side was taking advantage of the other, or not holding to the promises they made at the beginning. In others, the passion might just be gone, or maybe it was never there in the first place.

Sometimes, some (or all) of these things are true, and people stay in the bad relationship anyway. Why?

The answers, again, are similar for both employees/employers and married people, and I want to focus on two of them.

Sometimes, married people stay in bad or abusive relationships beyond their expiration dates because of kids: the idea is that breaking up a family can have adverse effects on the development of a child.

In the same way, employees will stick with a company that has treated them poorly, or that they don’t have passion for anymore, because of the projects they have going on that they don’t want to abandon in the middle, or the subordinates that they’re mentoring that would be left hung out to dry if they left. From the company side, they might not want to let an employee go in the middle of a project because of the value of the project, or for fear that valuable subordinates might follow.

I would respond to these things in order:

First, I’m not a child psychologist, but I’d wager that if Mom and Dad are fighting all the time, and are at each other’s throats because they’re not a good fit, that could also have an adverse effect on the children’s development…

In the same way, if Employee is absolutely miserable and hates his job or his boss, but is staying because he doesn’t want to abandon a project that he is heavily involved in, I’d question how good the work is that they’re doing on that project.

The reality is that unhappy employees often do less than satisfactory work, so staying on the project could be more detrimental long term than leaving in the middle and training someone else to pick up your slack.

The same thing works from the company perspective as well: what if Employee is under-performing, but Company has kept him on because Company is worried about the status of a project that Employee is integral to? Decision makers at Company really need to evaluate how big of a setback it would be to relieve Employee of their duties and train someone else, as opposed to leaving someone in the job that might not be performing at their highest level or with Company’s best interest at heart anymore.

If the Employee is under-performing anyway, is that someone Company really wants to leave on an important project?

If Employee is worried about the subordinates that he’s leaving behind at Company, it’s probably time to evaluate the actual impact Employee is having on his subordinates Are you really helping those subordinates, or are you just passing down ill will and bad habits to subordinates that perhaps don’t know better yet?

Sometimes the answer is to wait a little bit, until the child has graduated from high school or college, or until a project has been completed, but both sides need to evaluate the risks of staying longer than they should.

The other factor that I want to touch on that keeps people stale in jobs that aren’t a good fit anymore is this simple fact: change is hard, and often, very scary.

It’s easy for me, as a consultant, to advise a change if Employee’s current situation isn’t a good fit or is having detrimental effects on his health or family; it’s much harder for Employee to actually make the change.

Whether you’ve been at a job for 1 year or 30 years, people get comfortable in their situations, even the uncomfortable or bad ones, and change can be extremely difficult. This fear of the unknown is an incredibly human trait, and it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling it.

But sometimes, (often even, in a situation where one side is under-performing or taking advantage) that hard choice to make a change is the right one for everyone involved.

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