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Unhappy at Work? Change Your Job While Still In It

written by Eleanor Chin 28 August 2013

Eleanor Chin, MAPP '08, is a life and executive coach. Founder and President of Clarity Partners Coaching and Consulting, she works with institutional and individual clients to support them as they navigate change, create inclusive and dynamic systems, and leverage strategic strengths for growth, learning and competitive advantage. Full bio.

Eleanor's past articles are here.

When we are dissatisfied with our jobs, often our first instinct is to say to ourselves, “Get out!” Just as often, the very next thought is, “I can’t!” Then we feel stuck, and the emotional downward spiral begins.

For many reasons, it’s hard to get out or at least to change jobs quickly enough to bring some relief to our immediate pain. Whether the pain comes from overload, work that seems pointless, a demanding boss, or undesirable co-workers, there is something we can do that is more effective than simply enduring the pain while stewing in resentment. In the short term, we can try re-crafting our job or work environment until we can create a longer-term solution.

In a recent NY Times article, hope researcher Shane Lopez, PhD, talks about Job Crafting, a concept designed by Jane Dutton, Amy Wrzesniewski, and Justin Berg at the University of Michigan. Lopez starts by citing what the research says about four common characteristics of people who love their jobs:

  • They use their strengths every day.
  • They feel that they are in important part of their organization’s future.
  • They are surrounded by colleagues who care about their overall well-being.
  • They are excited about the future because of a leader’s enthusiasm and vision.

Using any of these criteria to make changes in your job will help you experience some relief from the stresses. You may feel that you are not able to change jobs in the short-term. But changing the way you approach to your current job can change your relationship to it. Here are some examples.

Are you aware of your strengths, and are you using them?

Tip: To find your strengths, make a list of the things that you feel you do well and get energy from doing well. Think about past successes and happy moments of accomplishments at work. What characterized your contributions to those moments: Ideas? Execution? Collaboration? If you can’t think of any, ask others. Then ask yourself, how can I apply these strengths with what I currently do? Knowing your strengths and trying to do more with them in your current work can eventually change the boundaries of your job and help you approach your work differently.

If this seems a bit overwhelming, think about taking small steps. Could you increase the time you spend actively applying your own particular strengths by 30 minutes a week? If you rate your satisfaction with your own performance at 4 out of 10, what could you do to take the rating to 5?

At the IPPA Congress, Fredrike Bannink suggested that a supervisor ask the person being reviewed to tell a story about a sparkling moment at work and to listen carefully for the strengths displayed by the person in the story. The supervisor then talks about the strengths implied by the story, increasing mutual insight into the individual’s strengths. Is there someone who could listen to your story of a sparkling moment and reflect your strengths back to you?

How much do you understand about the future of your organization and your place in it?

“A strong narrative that provides a clear, shared vision for the organisation is at the heart of employee engagement. Employees need to understand not only the purpose of the organisation they work for but also how their individual role contributes to that purpose.” MacLeod and Clarke in their report to the British government on employee engagement.

Tip: Talk to your manager or a friendly mentor about strategic or future plans for the organization or unit in which you work. Ask them to help you think about how your work contributes to those plans and ways you can increase your contribution. Then set one or two reachable short-term (3-6 month) goals. When you’ve accomplished those goals, celebrate and do it again. Setting doable goals and reaching them can give you back some of the autonomy and satisfaction you may be lacking.

Are you spending time with the wrong people at work?

Tip: If the people around you are complaining, negativity is contagious and you will catch this common workplace disease. While it may feel good to have others share in your complaints, over time this attitude leaks into everything you encounter. To cultivate new workplace relationships, make coffee or walking dates daily or weekly with positive people outside of your regular circle. Join a committee trying to make improvements to the workplace or a social group who does activities that you enjoy. Changing the people scenery around you will change the scenery in your head and your attitude. Positivity can also be contagious, as discovered by Fowler and Christakis in their analysis of the Framingham Heart Study:

“People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.”

Is your leader sharing his/her enthusiasm and vision?

Tip: Leaders are people too. They can get overwhelmed and forget that their subordinates need more communication from them. If your leaders are not communicating, make appointments with them to ask about their visions for the future. What are they most excited about? What keeps them up at night? How can you help? You might be surprised that they are surprised to have someone interested in what really matters. Both of you will get something from changing the focus away from the day-to-day minutiae. Asking them how you can help them succeed, and then following through, is a great way to build your professional network.

In summary, these short-term strategies can effectively change your mindset to be more productive and less destructive at work. By taking charge of what you can control, you feel more engaged and autonomous in small ways. This counteracts the feelings we often get that things around us are out of our control and going badly.

Feeling Strong

Feeling Strong

Additional benefits from a new mindset are:

  1. The job recrafting criteria can increase your self-awareness and help you make better choices for your future.
  2. You will be better able to see opportunities for long-term change.
  3. Applying these short-term strategies will eventually free up the energy you spend on negativity to focus on the long-term prospects.
  4. The people you meet can become part of your professional network. You never know whose advice, recommendation, or help you may need to handle a future job opportunity.

Together, an improved mindset and increased self-awareness, in addition to sustaining your engagement with your current job, can open up visions of a new future by aligning what you do with who you are.



Berg, J, M., Dutton, J. E., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2008). What is Job Crafting and Why Does It Matter? Job Crafting Exercise. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2008. Print.

Fisher, S. (2008). Call waiting? Answer the call for career well-being. Positive Psychology News. Includes a decription of the Job Crafting exercise.

Fowler, J. & Christakis, N. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, 337.

Lopez, S. J. (2013, May 25). Hone the Job You Have Into One You Love. New York Times.

Lopez, S. (2013). Making Hope Happen: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others. Atria Books.

MacLeod, D. & Clarke, N. (2009). Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement. Report sponsored by the British Government.

Photo credits via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Clockwatching courtesy of Alan Cleaver
Joel owns his strengths courtesy of joelgoodman
Elements of vision courtesy of ffaalumni
How do you spend your time with? courtesy of wintersoul1
Young strengths from iStockPhoto, license paid for by author. Syndicators: Do not use without purchasing license.

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Amanda Horne 28 August 2013 - 5:14 pm

Hi Eleanor – this is a very timely article. Thank you for bringing Job Crafting to our attention. I’m sending this to a number of clients who would find this article interesting for themselves and their colleagues.
Your article also sent me to the latest Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, and there are a number of relevant chapters on this theme of job design. I look forward to reading them.

Jeremy McCarthy 28 August 2013 - 8:42 pm

Another great reference on this is a new book by Michael Steger featuring new papers by Dutton, Burg Wrzesniewski and others: Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace — http://www.amazon.com/Purpose-Meaning-Workplace-Bryan-Dik/dp/1433813149/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1377739923&sr=1-1

I’ve been practicing Job Crafting in my own work as well as sharing it with others and have become a big proponent of it.

Jeremy McCarthy 28 August 2013 - 8:43 pm

Another great reference on this is a new book by Michael Steger featuring new papers by Dutton, Burg Wrzesniewski and others: Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace.

I’ve been practicing Job Crafting in my own work as well as sharing it with others and have become a big proponent of it.

Here’s an article I wrote drawing from some of the findings in the book: At Work, Be Like Water.

Tomas Imperial 29 August 2013 - 2:10 am

Hi Eleanor, in time and really what I need in My current job situation thanks.

Judy Krings 29 August 2013 - 5:05 am

Thanks, Eleanor. I will grab a few nuggets to share at the Chamber of Commerce speech I have coming u in SE. Changing your mindset and putting on your strengths cape is a dynamic duo of hope. Love that you added Shane’s book. A smile of hope is a powerful self-motivator. The movie, “Rocky” came to my mind.

Thanks for the extra references, Amanda and Jeremy. Great to see you both here. Great company!

Eleanor Chin 29 August 2013 - 11:02 am

Thanks for your supportive and helpful comments, Amanda, Jeremy and Judy! I have always been drawn to the Job Crafting research and hoped to produce a practical approach to using its principles here.

I was also super pleased and honored to see that Jane Dutton shared the article on her FB page. The work is so good, I’m glad it’s getting distributed again.


Helen 3 September 2013 - 6:18 am

great article – common sense really – so much better to improve a workplace and an attitude than to leave it with bad feeling.


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