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How to give yourself a better job, when quitting feels like your only option (and you can’t quit)

Dave Evans, coauthor of the new book Designing Your Work Life, explains how he advises professionals to redesign their work lives.

How to give yourself a better job, when quitting feels like your only option (and you can’t quit)
[Source images: Sandra M/iStock; jaouad.K/iStock]

In 2007, Dave Evans & Bill Burnett cofounded the Stanford Life Design Lab where they teach the enormously popular course “Designing Your Life” that inspired their 2016 worldwide bestselling book of the same name. Their new book, Designing Your Work Life, is a response to the thousands of requests they’ve received for help to make life better at work. Here, Dave tells the job redesign story of a former student, now in her mid-30’s:

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Angel* was looking forward to the birth of her second daughter, and really looking forward to a break from her lousy corporate accounting job. But her maternity leave was limited, and like all good things, it came to an end. She returned to work with high hopes, only to discover things were actually worse than before she left. The infighting and stress were worse than ever, and Angel’s boss was dressing for battle and was definitely part of the problem, not the solution. Powerless to fix it, Angel really, really, wanted to quit. But there was a mortgage now and childcare for two little girls. They needed her income. With all her responsibilities at home, she had neither the time nor energy to look for a new job while working full-time. Her options were to stick it out or quit, and she felt like she couldn’t quit.

She was stuck.

My colleague Bill Burnett and I hear these sorts of stories all the time. We have countless conversations with our readers, clients, and former students about feeling stuck and unhappy at work. In fact, according to a recent Gallup report, two out of three US workers are disengaged at work, so Angel was far from alone. But one of the things we’ve learned from the chance to work with thousands of people like Angel is that feeling stuck in a job rarely requires burning everything to the ground and starting over. That’s simply not an option for many, so they are in need of a better choice rather than just suffering through it.

As a former student of ours, Angel had what we call “office hours for life,” meaning she could call when she needed help. I listened to her dilemma and assured her that we could find a way for her to get a better work life without having to quit and start over.

I told Angel about four job redesign strategies:

  • Reframe and reenlist in your current job, but with a new mindset that directs your attention away from what’s unsolvable and onto what’s generative.
  • Remodel your job by adding new complementary duties that use your strengths while increasing your contribution resulting in a win-win for you and the company.
  • Relocate into a new job within the company that uses your existing skill set in a new area with different people.
  • Reinvent your career by retraining for a whole new kind of job then leveraging your internal contacts and reputation to make a big move within the company.

After 20 years of developing tools to help people redesign their lives and careers using Design Thinking—the innovation methodology centered on prototype iteration that’s fueled many of Silicon Valley’s breakthroughs—we’ve been able to distill the process into four doable steps. They might seem simple, but they are remarkably effective in building your way forward to design a better career and life.

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  • Get curious.
  • Talk to people.
  • Try stuff.
  • Tell your story.

First, I suggested Angel start by getting curious about what was really going on at work and why things were so difficult. After Angel briefed me on everything that was going on at the office—especially all the internal intrigue and infighting—I told her something that no one likes to hear: “It sounds to me like you’re going to have to get political.”

“No way!” Angel replied. She prided herself on never having gotten political at work, and she wasn’t about to start now. I told her she needed to adopt the designer mindset of empathy–clearly seeing both herself and her employer before being able to take action. And then we talked about power, and I explained that she needed to know how power worked in the company if she was going to be able to facilitate change.

The two primary forms of power in a company are authority—direct power to make decisions that bring about change, and influence—indirect power applied to shape the thinking of authoritative decision-makers. “Politics” is simply the wielding of influence power. It appears mysterious because it’s not explicitly documented like authority is in a typical org chart, but it’s easy to spot once you understand the power principle:

Value + Recognition = Influence Power

Having influence means the people in authority listen to you. So, who do they listen to? The people that they recognize as adding value to the company. When Angel looked around to see who the authorities were listening to and why—it was obvious what was going on. There were two power systems operating in the company; one valuing loyalty, to keep the company stable, and one valuing contribution, to keep the company competitive.

Loyalty and contribution are usually compatible, but when those values clashed, the result was infighting. In Angel’s workplace, it was happening now over a potential acquisition that would bring innovative products—but also would bring in lots of new employees whom the loyalists didn’t trust and feared would weaken the company culture.

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Angel had her MBA, had worked in growth-minded high-tech, and had only been at the company two years. She clearly valued contribution over loyalty, but her boss, Kayla* had been on the job for 14 years and was a dedicated loyalist working to defeat the acquisition.

It was time for a reframe. I helped Angel realize that she had no influence on Kayla because Angel wasn’t a loyalist. While there were great arguments for the increased competitiveness the acquisition might bring, Kayla would never think it was worth the risk of all those unproven employees. Acceptance of how things are, including what’s unchangeable, is the key to opening up new possibilities in a reframe.

Once Angel saw and accepted the political reality, things immediately got better. She stopped getting into useless arguments with her boss and focused on the work she could do that made a real contribution. She still had the exact same boss and job, but her experience of it was substantially improved by reframing how she thought about it and what she focused on.

But Angel didn’t stop there. We decided to try and remodel her job to make it even better. I suggested she get curious and start talking to people in other groups who were really enjoying their work to see what she could discover from their stories. Angel had noticed there were a few top performers elsewhere in her Finance and HR division doing interesting experimental projects. She asked them to lunch to hear more about what they were working on. What quickly surfaced was that all those projects were special assignments from the division VP, Ellery*. One day when leaving a division debriefing Ellery held the door for Angel. Angel seized the moment and said, “Thanks, Ellery. Hey, I’ve recently been talking to some of your special project assignees. They’re doing great work. I’d love to hear more about your ideas.” Ellery agreed to meet for coffee.

During the meeting, Angel learned what mattered most to Ellery: performance. He was all about high performance enhancements in culture, workflow, systems, you name it. Angel was in HR Accounting doing compensation reporting, but she was also an ace at quantitative analysis and had long thought there was valuable data going unanalyzed. At a follow-up coffee with Ellery, she showed him a sketch of an employee performance dashboard that she thought she could produce from the existing HR database. Ellery grabbed a pen, marked it up, then handed it back to Angel and said, “Look, if you’ll add these changes, I’d love to see a prototype.”

“No problem! Let’s meet in a week and I’ll have it for you,” she said. Angel’s efforts at getting curious and talking to people was paying off. Now was her chance to take the third step—try stuff—by prototyping the dashboard.

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She mocked up the new report in Excel and Ellery loved it. “This is worth doing. I’d love to see it implemented,” he said. “If you’re willing to put in the hours, I’ll authorize the project. You’ll have to do it on your own time. I can’t pull you off any of your assignments for Kayla, but you can do it at whatever pace you can manage.”

Angel of course said, “yes,” and in so doing had effectively remodeled her job.

She could only give the dashboard project two to three hours a week, and meantime Kayla loaded her up with more regular duties as a loyalty test, but the dashboard transformed Angel’s working life. That project brought her into conversation with Ellery and other top contributors on a semi-regular basis. She found lots of chances to tell her story by describing the dashboard and its use to people in other departments who all thought it was great (and whose endorsement got back to Ellery). She was still doing accounting 40 hours a week, but that one bona-fide innovation project made a huge difference to her.

After the dashboard went into production, Ellery asked Angel if she’d like to do another special project to implement one of the many other performance analysis projects they’d surfaced while working on the dashboard. She did, and after the second project was done, Ellery said, “Angel, I think we’ve got enough ideas here to create a new full-time role for HR Performance Analytics. Would you be interested?” He asked her to write up a justification for the new function and a job description for its leader.

It took another six months to get the new job approved and funded. Ellery required that Kayla approve of the new role, which took more time. He was one of very few people in the company well-regarded in both the loyalist and the contributor power systems and he was careful to respect them both. He wanted Angel’s move into a new department to be both operationally successful and politically supported. When Angel started the new job, shortly after her second baby’s first birthday, she had fully relocated herself in the company.

She loves her new job, and things at work are much better for Angel than they were a year ago, but they’re not perfect, and while things are good enough for now, she knows she’ll eventually have to redesign her job again. After the kids start preschool, she’s considering getting a coaching certification and moving into talent management to reinvent a second career at the company.

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And if that doesn’t work, she’ll quit and move on. No job is forever. Today’s young professionals can expect to live to a healthy 100, and will probably work into their 80s and have over a dozen jobs and three or four distinct careers. So, quitting and starting anew will happen to all of us—and more than once. (In addition to giving people the job redesign tools to make the most of their current situation, there’s a chapter in our new book about designing a great quit for the inevitable day when quitting is the right move.)

Over 12 months, Angel successfully redesigned her work three times by reframing, remodeling, and finally relocating into successively better and better jobs, though only the last of which involved an actual transfer. Along the way she became more politically savvy, built her internal network, and made solid contributions—all without compromising her values or ever giving up her salary. It was a tough 12 months of early mornings and extra homework, but it was worth it, resulting in a win-win for her, the company, and her family.

*All names have been changed.


Dave Evans is the cofounder of the Stanford Life Design Lab and coauthor of Designing Your Work Life, out now.

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