Employees often shift expectations when faced with small job frustrations. Overall time the small changes add up, leading to an unhappy employee who doesn’t consciously realize it’s time to move on.
There’s a famous parable about boiling a frog. If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. However, if you slowly turn up the heat the frog won’t notice and will get cooked. The story is an allegory for how you sometimes need to make gradual changes to avoid people being jarred by a large transition.
Scientists tell us this story is not true. Cold-blooded animals such as frogs do pay careful attention to their environment to regulate heat. They will notice excessive heat just as surely as a lack of heat and will, in fact, jump out of the pot before it’s too late. Unfortunately, many people are not as well equipped as our amphibious friend.
All too often I see someone take a job that starts off well but declines over time. It might be a new policy at first reducing flexible hours. Then there’s a new coworker who is difficult. Next comes a shift in projects so you find yourself you’re doing less of what you enjoy and more monotonous work. If all this happened in a week, you’d be updating your resume. If it happens over a year, your response is quite likely more muted.
After a while you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?” And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful job.” And you may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?”
Humans are very adaptable. Any one of those would be frustrating, but not a deal breaker. If your job changes so it’s less enjoyable you might find yourself reframing how you view your job, emphasizing liking your co-workers or the company culture as a key reason for staying. If then the flexible hours change you grumble but know that policy changes happen, and one small change isn’t worth quitting over. Each time there’s a small negative change, we often reset our expectations. What this means is that five changes in it feels like only one small change because each time we re-anchored our expectations. Compared to the original anchor, this last change takes us far away from our initial expectations, but because we shifted each time, this change, like the ones before it, feels relatively small.
After a while you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?” And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful job.” And you may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?” [And you may say to yourself, I shouldlisten to the Talking Heads more often.]
The frog has a physiology to instinctively thermoregulate. We need to be more conscientious when it comes to officus regula (a made-up Latin term for job regulation). We often take informal approaches when evaluating a job. Sometimes it’s relativistic: this is the best job among the options that I saw during my last job search. Other times it’s subjective: I’ll know whether it's good or bad when I see it. However, circumstances change, and we can’t always be as objective as we think.
We need to be more conscientious when it comes to officus regula
We can be more formal by defining what we want in a job. This can include title, compensation, tasks performed, company culture, and more. You may not get everything you want but can trade off items such as slightly lower pay for a more enjoyable job. Once you take a job, you might find that you’ve come to value other things. For example, you may not have cared about flexible hours, but once you have it, you come to value it.
The key is to write down what’s important to you. You can also update it from time to time. What mattered three years ago may be different from what matters today. The key is that it doesn’t get updated as frequently as changes at work occur. As your job changes, for better as well as worse, you can compare it to this list. It provides a more objective anchor and will give you an indication when the job is no longer enough of a fit and it’s time to go.
Reframing our expectations is a powerful emotional tool. It can help us cope with loss, anxiety, fear, and a variety of other negative emotions. Unfortunately, it can sometimes work too well, and keep us in the pot longer than we should be staying. Keeping an active career plan, or even just an objective list of the benefits causing you to first accept a job, can help prevent reframing from leading you astray. The world is not static, and your job will never be the same as it ever was.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.