Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Do you spend days or weeks on a project, only to have it sit in your boss' in-box, stagnant?
On Sunday nights, do you dread going back to work?
Do your ideas get dismissed offhand?
Do you find yourself dragging into work late?
Do you feel unappreciated and disengaged?
Does your position lack a defined career path?
Do your boss or colleagues take credit for your work?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you are probably not thriving in your job.
Gallup's latest study of employee engagement, conducted in 2018, found a rise in employee engagement. Now 34 percent of U.S. employees are "involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace," an increase of 1 percent from the previous study. In my view, 34 percent is shockingly low.
Twenty-three years ago today, I gave birth to my first child extremely prematurely. Weighing one pound, six ounces, Christopher was frail, tiny, and sick. He stayed in the NICU for 117 days, and we learned to appreciate life and our supportive community. After starting out so tiny, Chris struggled to gain weight after coming home. We constantly feared he would be labeled with the dreaded "failure to thrive," a medical term for babies who don't gain weight as expected. (Fortunately, my college graduate son now loves to eat and is a walking, talking miracle!) Whether it's a baby or full-grown adult, thriving = growth. Are you growing in your job?
Some people are better about paying attention to whether they are thriving than others. As a natural "look on the bright side" optimist, I've found myself sticking with a company longer than I should have, even though I'd stopped thriving. My glasses are rose colored and sometimes they blind me.
Failure to thrive Warning Signs
Several years ago one of my high-performing managers began arriving late at work. She was responsible for client service and managing a team, so her presence in the office was important. When I checked in with her to ask if everything was okay, she burst into tears. Even though she liked the work and the team, the environment was just not working for her and she couldn't articulate the problem until I asked her about it. She soon found a new job.
Back when I managed a large Publications group and employees seemed dissatisfied, I asked them, "Are you happy in your job more than 50 percent of the time?" If they answered no, I told them we either needed to find a way to fix that or they should find a new position. Life is too short! This 50 percent question can raise a red flag, but it's not always a reliable indicator of thriving. I could have answered "yes" to that question throughout most of my career, even when I was not thriving on fertile ground (thanks to those rose-colored glasses!).
Finding Fertile Ground
When I began thinking about what kind of environment I wanted in my next chapter, the phrase "fertile ground" came to me. I've had wonderful opportunities in my career to do great work with exceedingly talented people. I've rarely been bored. At my best moments, I worked for bosses who brought out the best in me, giving me opportunities to thrive. As a creative ideator and a natural leader, I know that my best work comes when I have freedom, autonomy, challenges, appreciation, and support. It's been a few years since I've worked on fertile ground, in an environment where I can thrive.
Earlier this summer my beloved brother-in-law, the healthiest person I know, was diagnosed with throat cancer. He's dedicated his life to teaching adaptive PE to special ed kids, while raising his own three amazing sons and being an incredible husband to my sister. Fortunately he has an excellent prognosis, once he gets through the brutal treatment (tracheostomy, radiation, and chemo all at once). I keep thinking back to that day in early July, when he went to a doctor's appointment on a milestone birthday, and learned that his life was about to change dramatically. Talk about a wakeup call! How can we waste our time, not living our fullest life, when it can all change in a day?
assess your garden plot
If you've determined you cannot grow or thrive where you are, consider your options:
1. Look around in your organization--can you do something different? Do other positions look interesting? Do you need more challenges? One of my proudest management successes was coaching and supporting countless employees who wanted to stretch their wings and become something new...document publishing operators who turned into proposal coordinators, reprographic operators who turned into graphic designers, technical editors who turned into proposal managers, and the biggest one of all...a technical writer/editor who eventually became our company's global sustainability director, and my boss for a while! If you're not working in a place that encourages growth and advancement, it will be impossible to thrive there.
2. Talk to your boss and coworkers. Ask for advice and feedback on what your strengths are. Tell them you're looking for opportunities. Maybe a few tweaks in your position or responsibilities will make a huge difference in your job satisfaction. Maybe your boss needs to know you don't feel supported and empowered. And if you are not in a space where you can talk to your boss, that's a huge red flag right there. Unsupportive boss = no thriving possible.
3. Assess your organization's culture. Is it possible to thrive there? Does the organization have strong leadership, from the top all the way down? Do they embrace your ideas and allow you to follow through on them? Do you feel appreciated? Do they refuse to allow toxic behavior in employees? Do they actually walk their talk (what they tout on their website or mission and values)? Sometimes it's harder to see problems in culture than in our actual jobs, as I've found in the last few years.
4. If you're not ready, set a deadline. In the large company where I worked most of my career, the HR professionals were feeling devalued and unappreciated as the company made changes to their organization. One coworker had a hunch she needed to move on, so she gave herself a deadline (Bastille Day!) to see if things would improve. They did not, so she quit on Basque Day and found another job.
5. If you cannot find a way to bloom where you are planted, move on. Over your lifetime, you'll spend an average of 13 years and 2 months at work, according to HuffPost Australia, versus only 328 days socializing with your friends. Life is simply too short to spend your 13 years and 2 months in a place where you're dissatisfied, unappreciated, and failing to thrive. A former coworker said recently, "all companies are like this." I simply refuse to believe that. If you're not thriving, start looking for a new employer or vocation. Find your fertile ground.
6. If you're stuck, find someone to help you. A career coach, counselor, or wise and wonderful friend can help you find your path. One of my friends felt stressed and suffocated as an elementary school teacher, so she gathered a circle of wise, seasoned women to her house one evening to guide her through her decision. She left teaching and has reinvented herself once more as a high-performing project manager.
Finding fertile ground can be terrifying. It might require faith and hope and fortitude. It might shake your sense of security to its core. But in the end, you will grow.
The wise Mary Oliver knew about fertile ground:
are you breathing
just a little,
and calling it a life?
what is it
you plan to do
one wild and precious life?"
Don't waste it!