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Quiet Desperation at Work

In my encounters with employees from different companies, I tend to witness a particular commonality in corporate and business cultures characterized by control. Thoreau captured the common thread in this quote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

When I facilitate focus groups with employees I find that there is sometimes a majority that feels a sense of entrapment. They need a job, especially in an ambiguous environment, but they feel underutilized, underdeveloped, unfairly treated, and disappointed because their work doesn't bring them opportunities for growth. The work has become a part of a repetitive transaction.

I hear many stories about this but one particular example comes to mind. Joe is a supervisor who was asked to meet with his team to share information about a change in his department. He was reluctant to schedule a meeting because whenever he hosts one, his Manager reacts negatively if she is not invited and finds a way to humiliate Joe and other team members if she is .

Inviting her would not be a challenge if employees felt safe in her presence, so on one hand, Joe is struggling because he knows he needs to hold regular team meetings but he would rather not experience the mental and emotional anguish of being insulted and providing a platform for others to be bullied so he avoids meetings at all costs. As a result, members of the team stagnate because they are ill informed. There is also a significant trust deficiency, even toward Joe who is unable to protect his team members from their aggressive boss. The meetings and the lack of meetings both trigger a state of quiet desperation for different reasons.

In other cases of quiet desperation, employees wait and wait until an executive or manager recognizes their potential with a promotion or some other form of recognition. There aren’t enough leaders who take interest in mentoring so high, and even average performing employees end up stuck doing the same thing over and over while they wait for a ray of light. In circumstances like this, employees face the repetition of the same work.

Some employees long to be developed but are given feedback that does not add any particular value. Comments like, “Oh you are doing a great job” or “we have plans for you” are not developmental so employees don't even know what they are doing well. Most times these non-specific statements are designed to keep your hope alive so that you will hang onto the promise of a bright future. When the waiting goes on and on, (ad nauseum) some employees get tired of the lack of commitment and leave the company, others sit back and patiently experience the interminable wait, that leads to quiet desperation.

Quiet desperation also happen when highly political, spin savvy co-workers continuously attempt to diminish their coworkers, using their relationships with executives and powerbrokers to plant seeds of doubt about anyone they view as a threat. They use their relationships to attack their competition, leaving the person being attacked in a frustrated and quietly desperate state because they don't understand why their careers are not progressing.

Employees can experience quiet desperation when you they are powerless. For example, Francisco feels immobilized because he was conditioned to accept the opinion that he should wait his turn for a promotion. He bought into this cultural belief and waited and waited in a state of quiet desperation. Some people wait longer than they should (for their entire careers). Others catch on and seek new challenges elsewhere.

Powerlessness is a state of mind. When people think they are powerless, they are because their self-talk is dictating their reality. When this happens those who feel powerless end up accepting their lack of progress as they watch their coworkers achieve the promotions they wanted. When pessimism sets in, powerlessness deepens, they begin to think they will never get that promotion or recognition, this always happens to them, and there is nothing they can do. But these are just stories they tell themselves that they can change at any time.

Yes, You Do Have a Choice

The first step in digging yourself out of your quiet desperation is to realize that you always have a choice. You have a choice about which company you work for, the kind of work you want to do, whether or not you will approach your supervisor, or what is the best timing? When I meet people who believe there is no choice, most times I find that they haven't developed a blueprint for their career.

People experience quiet desperation at work for many reasons. It can be due to work or home circumstances. We focused mostly on career stagnation in this article because it is a common complaint. You have multiple career paths you can consider. Some employees plan to move up the hierarchy within the company they work for and others are inclined toward changing jobs within their industries. There are employees who are not interested in a promotion because they don’t want anyone reporting to them but they are interested in job enrichment and a salary increase so they may be quietly and desperately waiting for the company to modify the career paths, making room for opportunities for growth. Others may be quietly waiting to retire. Whatever the reason for employee quiet desperation, it needs attention because quiet desperation impacts engagement, which impacts performance, turnover, and ultimately results.

Employees are not the only ones who can be quietly desperate. There are business owners who feel trapped. They eventually become tired of the routine and start to resent employees who are dependent on them for a salary. They want to be free.

Break out of The Trance: Reinvent Yourself:

Start by identifying what it is that you want to do and who you want to be and then create a plan to get there. Always recognize that you have a choice and don’t buy into the deception that there are no possibilities. If you get creative, no matter your age, experience, skills, or educational background you can find something that you can do. There is also the question of risk associated with making a career move. Ask yourself several questions: "What are my potential risks? How can a decision to stay/go impact me and my family? What are the potential benefits?

Even when you think you don’t have a choice, you are making a choice to go with the flow so why not make an active choice instead of a passive one? When you start perceiving options, you feel less trapped, and more alive.

I have witnessed profound transformations within employees who have reinvented themselves using plans. When you have a plan it can strengthen your clarity, and by extension your confidence, especially if you have a built in contingency plan. Even if you don’t have an entire plan documented you can be re-invigorated by the potential created by having a partial one. You can shift from quiet desperation at work, to an engaged employee with a fulfilling career.

With knowledge gained from over 30 years of Fortune 500 and international consulting experience, Yvette shares her rich experience and proprietary model for changing businesses from the inside out. She is a thought leader in the areas of trust, leadership and organizational ecosystems, an award winning author and cultural consultant.

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