Unhappy in your work? Tell someone!

Employees can use these 6 strategies to drive an honest dialogue with their employer.
By Jennifer Wilson

In my work, I travel the country and speak with hundreds of Next Gen leaders each year. I also have the privilege of coaching some of our profession's brightest future leaders, charting their course to "what's next." There are mostly highs in these journeys, but one thing that troubles me is the tendency I see in some to be unhappy in their work, tell no one, and then just leave.

When these bright future leaders give notice, their employer is often surprised. Management didn't realize these individuals were unhappy or how serious their concerns were. Why did they suffer in silence? Why didn't they give their employer an opportunity to change?

What should you do if you find yourself unhappy and seriously considering leaving your job? This column explores six strategies employees can use to drive an honest dialogue about their satisfaction and increase their chances of remaining with their firm.

Pay attention. If you're having a hard time showing up at work, you don't feel like participating, you're complaining a lot, or you're feeling like you're in a rut, these are all signals that you need to talk to someone in leadership about strategies to change your course.

Identify the root cause. Work to discern the cause of your unhappiness. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I want more or less of?
    • What do I most look forward to at work? What do I most like in the work I'm doing? Why do I like it?
    • What do I dread or like least in the work? How come?
  • If I could change one thing about my role, what would it be?
  • If I could change one thing about the people I'm interacting with, what would I change?

Coming to clear answers will help you crystalize your message to — and requests of — firm leadership.

Muster the courage. Most of us don't want to approach our employer because we don't want to disappoint people, make waves, or burn bridges. If your satisfaction is sinking, you're going to disappoint your employer at some point — either with decreased performance or with your resignation. At that point, it's too late for anyone to make real change. If you care about your firm, your team and/or your clients, you owe it to them to share honestly and give firm leaders a chance to make changes. And, if you feel this way, others at your firm may feel this way, too, especially if your concerns are cultural or related to a specific individual or client. By speaking up, you may prompt change and raise the satisfaction of many others, too. And speaking up to share concerns constructively and ideas for change is a hallmark of leadership.

Approach an advocate. Find a firm leader to talk with about your concerns. Sometimes that's your direct supervisor, but not if the issues pertain to him or her, or if you've discussed the issues and no action has been taken. Sometimes, the people directly above us are not speaking for or acting on behalf of the firm — and your senior leaders need to be made aware of issues causing your disengagement.

Offer solutions. In addition to sharing your feelings, offer ideas for change that might help you get your mojo back. Sometimes, these are simple requests, like asking to be taken off a particularly unpleasant client engagement, requesting work that is closer to your home, or being moved to a quieter cubicle. Other times, they seem like gargantuan requests — like moving to another department or service line, or not having to work with a particular firm leader again. No matter their size or scope, if you think that your ideas for change may enable you to reconnect with the firm, offering them up will give firm leaders the best opportunity to make meaningful change.

Establish an action plan. Ask for specific timing to get back together to follow up on any action the firm can take related to your concerns and ideas. Based on the commitments made to you by firm leaders, honestly weigh their plans and decide if you can commit to earnestly try them, or if they are too little, too late. Be straight with your advocate and make honest plans together.

I have seen these strategies employed recently by brave up-and-comers with real success. In one instance, an auditor realized her passion wasn't in auditing, but instead in people and practice development. She was afraid to address this, spending several months internalizing stress signals and thinking her only recourse was to leave the firm. But before doing so, she worked up the courage to tell her office leader and proposed several alternative roles. The firm has since developed a great new program management role for her that draws on her interests and passions.

Another example is an overworked tax manager who shared his concerns that the partners were over-assigning work to him and under-assigning to another less-experienced team member. He was starting to get burned out and develop feelings of resentment. His leaders evened out the work distribution and invested more of their time to bring the more junior team member along. They also asked the tax manager to let them know if his own workload became too much again.

In both cases, these future leaders felt better having expressed themselves, their concerns have been addressed, and they gained a deeper respect and trust in their firm leaders because of their commitment to address change.

Sometimes, our individual goals and desires don't align with those of our firm and we have to move on. But just as often, our firm leaders are unaware of our needs or concerns, and they're willing to make changes to alleviate issues or fulfill our passions and interests, if we'd only allow them to do so.

Don't suffer in silence or leave without trying. Give your firm leaders a chance to change. Speak up!

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at

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