Why do we stay in Terrible Jobs?


All this talk about making work better made me start wondering about how the situation has gotten so dire.  I mean, it’s not as if we, the individual workers, are somehow bound to work at a particular company.  We are free to walk out at any given time and go find another job.  You talked about setting work free in your last post and I think that’s a great idea.  But, I think for that to happen, the worker has to set themselves free first.

So, I started wondering why we’ve allowed things to get this way.  Granted, the economy has complicated the free flow of job opportunity the past couple of years, but this problem of broken work and dysfunctional workplaces didn’t happen overnight.  Why didn’t we just say “enough” and stop it before it got out of hand?  Here are a couple things that have come to mind for me.

1.  We have become financial slaves to our jobs.  Our quest for immediate satisfaction and desire for stuff has led us expand our lifestyles and budgets as our income has grown.  We live in houses bigger than we can afford, carry around a stack of maxed out credit cards and it takes every penny each month to keep the card house we’ve built from toppling in on us.  Maybe not everyone is this financially fragile, but many are close.  We can’t afford to take a month off from a regular paycheck, much less several months.  The result, we feel as if we are held hostage by that paycheck.  We convince ourselves that there’s nothing we can do and that we must protect our job at all costs.  When we are in this mode, we don’t take risks, we don’t push back, and we certainly don’t walk away–even when the situation gets toxic.  In order to free ourselves from work, we have to free ourselves financially.  We need to save, to create stability–starting very early in our careers–so that we have the flexibility to pursue work on our own terms.

2.  We’ve developed a victim’s mindset.  Year’s ago, my colleague Cy Wakeman introduced me to the concept of learned helplessness.  In simplest terms, learned helplessness is when we take an external constraint and internalize and embellish it in our minds until we begin to believe it’s our own constraint.  The easy example is a dog who lives in a yard with an invisible electric fence.  When the invisible fence is initially put up, the dog will test the boundaries of the yard.  When he goes over the threshhold, he gets zapped.  When when he comes back into the yard, the zaps stop.  Eventually, the dog stops testing the boundaries of the yard.  He has become resigned to the fact that he can never leave that yard.

I think the same thing has happened with work.  We’ve come to expect work to be a sub par experience.  We’ve come to accept that most managers are going to suck, that we will be subjected to processes that are painful and add no value at work (performance appraisals anyone?), and we will only infrequently be given the opportunity to do work that we actually care about.  Some of us probably even tried pushing back on the system early in our careers and had some poor results.  Or, maybe we left one bad job only to stumble into another bad one.  So, we’ve decided that this is just the way it has to be.  Work is going to mostly suck and we just need to live with it.   Wrong.  We must begin to push boundaries again, to fight for what we need–for work that matters and is fulfilling.  We need to break out of this learned helplessness that has us in it’s grasp and realize that we don’t have to accept the status quo.  We need to demand better.

3.  We don’t know what we want to do.  Let’s be honest, many of us may not recognize our perfect job if it fell out of the sky and landed right in front of us.  We are extremely lazy when it comes to investing in the self-awareness and development it takes to grow into a really fulfilling career.  So, when we find ourselves in a job that isn’t doing it for us, we aren’t sure why.  We don’t know for sure if it’s the company, the work, the manager, the co-workers, or a general combination of it all.  Because we lack this clarify individually, we generally end up following whatever path provides to a bigger paycheck (refer back to point 1).   So many people have been following the money for so long, they have forgotten what it feels like to do work that lights a fire inside.  They just wake up each day and do what they need to do to protect the paycheck.  Until we decide to take accountability for our own course by investing the time and energy in our career that it deserves, we are destined to end up in unsatisfying jobs that just contribute to problem.  Side note: This phenomena is why I think management has become so awful.  It was the only career path available to a lot of people who were just wanting more money but had no skill or desire to manage other people.

So, what does this all mean?  To me, the people have the power when it comes to fixing work and I don’t believe that organizations will respond until we create a circumstance where they have no choice.  The problem is that we, the people, have to get our own houses in order first if we have any hope of success.



  1. Nailed it Jason.

    So many do stay in terrible jobs without ever examining the “why”. Self-awareness would come with a price…for sure.

    To break the marketplace pattern we have to break our personal patterns.

    To be honest, it’s amazing what high pain tolerance one can achieve while remaining in a terrible job.

    Wonder what Joe will have to say about your post!?!

    Keep creating…and merry making,

  2. Thanks Mike. It’s a perplexing thing because despite being aware of many of these traps, I’ve found myself stuck in them–as recently as a couple years ago. It’s a big issue and not an easy one to address. Thanks for the words of support. And thanks for the work you are doing on your end to shift the balance.

  3. Jason, this is a great post. So many people do not realize the power that daily, individual choices have on where we end up in life and in our careers.

    I love the mind set you are challenging here, keep getting the message out!

  4. Yep, nailed it absolutely.

    Becoming a Manager just correlates with higher pay as you go up the ladder, not to the ability to perform the responsibilities.

    Good post

  5. Thanks Melissa. I hope that by talking about these ideas here, perhaps the message will travel through others as well.

  6. Thanks Chris. This issue with management promotion is a epidemic and it’s been going on for years. It is time to break the cycle.

  7. Years ago the term “golden handcuffs” was commonly used to explain why people stayed in terrible jobs-back then many employees had access to pretty rich pensions and they stayed when they should havenleft because those pensions were designed in a way that tehtered them to a specific organization. Then corporations started eliminating those but then a new set of golden handcuffs showed up-the lucrative severance package for being laid off-so people stayed thinking they really wanted that big severance payout-then they would have time to decide what to do next without financial hardship. Now both those handcuffs are pretty much relegated to the land of the dinosaurs (unless you are one of the few who have insane buyout contracts) so the handcuffs now are no longer golden-but produced from fear. Amber Naslund wrote a good post on her Brass Tacks Thinking blog about this yesterday.

  8. Karin, this is a great point. The new handcuffs are sort of terrifying because they are invisible and many people don’t even know that they are shackled by them. Perhaps we call them psychological handcuffs. I think it’s not completely unlike the shackles that keep people from leaving dysfunctional and abusive relationships.

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