New job regrets? Throughout my professional career, I’ve seen a great many people struggle with a recent job change, wanting to make an immediate U-turn. Candidates I’ve recruited and placed have called me in near-panic a few weeks afterwards, warning me that they were probably going to leave their new job. Several former employees have called me after leaving the organization I managed, asking whether their job was still open and whether they could come back. I’ve experienced it myself – feeling like a deer caught in headlights, asking myself, “Oh, no … what have I done?”
Why is this so incredibly common, when a new job should be positive and exciting?
Well, the first answer to the question is found in the question itself: the ‘should’. Expectations and high hopes are powerful things. Whenever we go through the process of getting a new job, we imagine the end of that process for weeks, even months. It’s human nature; we can’t help it. We picture the moment when we’ll receive the happy news. We envision ourselves in the workplace, doing the job as we’ve come to know it. We think about how it’ll be to work with the new colleagues we’ve met through the interview process. And not once do we think of that experience as less than perfect. We idealize it, and therein lies part of the problem. No real-life experience can live up to an idealized one.
This isn’t a comparison that happens consciously. We don’t sit with a pro/con list, tabulating all the ways that the reality of our new job isn’t lining up with what we’ve imagined. This lives in our subconscious, as a nagging ‘buzz’, a dissonance. An experience that doesn’t live up to our expectations is one piece of the puzzle, but there’s another, even more significant reason why so many people experience this kind of ‘buyers remorse’.
We don’t give nearly enough weight to just how big a deal it is to change jobs.
I’m guessing this is because on the surface, it seems like such a commonplace thing to do. Almost every person will change jobs at least once during their career. So why the fuss, right? That’s the problem, right there. It is a big deal. A very big deal.
Don’t buy it just yet? Okay, bear with me. Would you agree with me that picking up and moving to a different country, with a language and culture entirely different from that of your home country, is a big deal? Stay with that analogy for a moment.
When you move to a new country, you’re in an entirely new environment and new surroundings. Everything that was familiar to you is gone, left behind in your former home. Finding shelter, a place to live, is the first priority. You’ve got to set yourself up with a bank account, and utilities. You have to figure out where to find basics like grocery stores and pharmacies. That experience is extremely stressful, made doubly so because you can’t retreat to the familiar places that alleviate that stress.
The change to a new job is not so different. We’ve left behind familiar offices and surroundings, and (depending how well our new company handles onboarding) we have to figure out all over again the basics of being a productive employee. What we’re experiencing in these moments is the loss of everything that was familiar, most of which we had pretty much taken for granted. It’s dizzying and overwhelming, and it’s a big part of the anxiety we feel in the first days and weeks of a new job. But wait (as the saying goes) … there’s more.
The new country you’ve chosen as your home has a primary language different from your own. It also has a different culture; a different set of ‘norms’. This means that on top of the generalized unfamiliarity of a new place, you now have to learn an entirely new language, and look to the people around you for cues about how to act. How to be in this new place.
Again, there are parallels to the world of work. Every organization has a different culture, and we generally accept that fitting in, becoming part of that cultural fabric, takes some time. But have you thought about just how many linguistic differences there are from one workplace to the next? Each organization has its own set of acronyms and abbreviations that become part of our ‘work-speak’ over time, of course. (I’m dating myself here, but I’m reminded of the Friends episode with Chandler and his WENUS.) It goes deeper than terminology, though. Workplace language is also about the process of communication. Some people like email, others need a face-to-face conversation or a phone call. You definitely don’t want to email that guy, but this other guy needs to be copied on every email about that subject. Looking for an approval on something? Sure, it seems like your boss should be able to make that decision, but everybody knows that you’ve got to run it by that other person, too. When we join a new company, there’s not usually a guidebook to the unspoken ways that language and culture are part of the everyday workplace. They affect every interaction we have in the context of our new job, and – for the most part – we’re left on our own to figure it out over time. Which brings me to the next point.
To state the perfectly obvious, when we move to a new country, we’re surrounded by new people. We’re suddenly in a context in which we have no existing relationships; everyone is a stranger to us, and us to them.
The same is true when we take on a new job. Most of the people around us (except the ones we met during the interviews) are brand new to us. They all have circles of friend-colleagues, and we’re not part of any of those circles yet. And sure, most people are friendly to the ‘new kid on the block’, but friendliness doesn’t necessarily equate to a supportive relationship – not immediately, at least. After all, they’re figuring us out, too – getting to know who we are, and what we’re all about. True relationships take time to develop. And whether the move was to a new job or a new home, there is one other commonality: we’ve left behind all the relationships we had in our previous job. The people we turn to when we’re having a rough day, the people we commiserate with at the (literal or figurative) water cooler … they’re not there, at exactly the time we need them the most. Most people don’t give credence to how isolating that can feel.
The last adjustment is in how we define our own competence. It’s not a small thing: competence is one of the pillars in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. After a move to a new country, a feeling of competence sets in when we begin to feel like a ‘local’. We know how to get along and get by. We feel comfortable in our skin in this new place.
In a new workplace, competence is usually more explicitly defined as performance against expectations. In a perfect world, we’d be clear on the expectations of us in a new job, but this world is far from perfect. Most people start their new jobs with some big questions about what ‘good performance’ looks like: how we’ll be measured, what everyone around us is expecting from us. And of course, this is in direct conflict with our very human need and desire for acceptance and approval – the desire to do a good job right away. This conflict isn’t a conscious one on either part. Most people would acknowledge that it takes some time to get to know a new job well enough to ‘knock it out of the park’. Most companies that I’ve ever worked with have completely understood that a new employee takes time to get settled and to travel along the learning curve in their own time. And yet, it still feels to most people like there’s an unspoken rift between what they’re doing today, and what they think they should be doing. This, in turn, often causes us to question our own abilities, undermining that sense of competence that we all need.
All of this put together creates, in some cases, so much anxiety that it begins to feel like regret. We look in the rearview mirror with fondness, not noticing that we’re seeing everything through rose-coloured glasses.
I have to interrupt myself here with one qualification: a job change is sometimes the wrong one! Sometimes a job actually wasn’t represented accurately. Sometimes a hiring company sweeps things under the rug during interviews, and – to shamelessly mix metaphors – only after you take the job do the skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. The trick is to use self-reflection and self-awareness to piece apart what are valid red flags about a new job, and what might just be a case of very justifiable discomfort with a big change.
So, what to take from all of this? If you’re in the process of looking for or interviewing for a new job, start preparing yourself now. Be aware that you’re setting your expectations high, and that every job – even one that looks perfect on the surface – comes with its own set of warts. Be prepared for the anxiety you’ll feel in the initial weeks and months in a new job, and know that there are good and valid reasons for what you’re going to feel.
And if you’ve just started a new job and you’re thinking about making a U-turn, take a deep breath. Spend some time reflecting on the magnitude of the change you’ve just made, and allow yourself to feel what you feel. Be as objective as you can in deciding whether your buyer’s remorse is more about the new job, or about what you’ve left behind, and make your decisions based on that reflection. And above all else, be gentle with yourself.