Ask a Boss: When Should I Admit I Can’t Do My Job?

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Dear Boss,

When is it time to admit you can’t do a job? I’m 24 and I graduated a year and a half ago. After six months of job searching and freelancing, I started a position far more senior than I expected (think assistant director of a particular area of my organization’s work).

I’d interned for a company as a student and they later asked me to work as short-term holiday cover. They then offered me a full-time position in the role that I covered, which was a fantastic opportunity for me. It’s a very competitive industry, especially when you’re starting out.

It’s not directly managing anyone, but I direct and organize contractors to deliver projects, often working on the design myself. It requires creativity, tact, good judgment, and a level of autonomy that frankly I’m not capable of (yet). All my projects have to be double-checked, with frequent corrections. Some big projects have had to be reworked almost entirely.

I feel stressed and stupid almost constantly. I have zero self-esteem; I know I’m okay at handling most of the job, but there’s always something that isn’t right. Most of the other people at my level have years more experience, and it shows.

Now, because I’ve interned for the company and did holiday cover, I’ve been telling myself that they knew what they were getting when they hired me: someone enthusiastic, bright, and with pretty much zero industry experience.

But the manager who hired me moved on about three months after I started. My new manager — while a very nice person — did not sign up for a direct report who needs as much direction and correction as I do. My feeling is that she’s becoming more and more frustrated.

My manager and I have talked about my mistakes or weak areas, and we’ve implemented some processes so I get more supervision at key points of projects. I’ve talked to her about feeling overwhelmed and she’s been fairly positive about my capacity for progress. But it’s been a year; I don’t feel like I’m making meaningful progress and the stress is killing me.

My actual question is this: When is it okay to look for a more junior/less responsible role? Can you explain to future employers in a positive light? Is it better to look for something tangentially related, so it’s less obvious as a backward move? Should I just continue to suck it up as part of the learning process?

For what it’s worth, this is still a field that I very much want to work in, which is why I feel like I’m nuts to throw away this opportunity. Please advise!

Before you decide anything, talk to someone who knows your work.

Because the thing is, while it’s possible that your self-assessment is accurate and you really aren’t the right match for the role, it’s also possible that you’re far more critical of your own performance than anyone else is. You wouldn’t be the first person to have serious impostor syndrome upon finding yourself in a position that’s more senior than you expected to be in. In fact, it’s super common as a conscientious person — and particularly as a conscientious woman — to feel like your skills can’t possibly warrant the responsibilities you’ve been given, even when everyone around you thinks you’re doing fine.

On the other hand, of course, it’s also possible that your assessment of how you’re doing is accurate and that this isn’t the ideal job for you right now. That happens, and it could be what’s happening to you — and if so, it’s good that you’re taking a clear-eyed look at it. But especially because you report that your boss seems positive about your capacity for progress, it’s worth getting a reality check before you make any big decisions.

As for how to get that reality check … What’s your relationship with your boss like? If you have pretty good rapport with her, you might be able to just sit down with her and say something like this: “I wanted to step back and talk about how I’m doing in my job overall. I know that I was hired with less experience than other people in this role. And I know I’ve needed more direction and coaching and I’ve made some mistakes. What I don’t have a good sense of is whether you genuinely think that I’m moving toward being able to excel at the work, or whether it might be a fundamental mismatch in the long term.”

If your boss does think it’s a fundamental mismatch, she’ll likely be relieved that you’re making it easy for her to tell you. (To be clear, if that’s the case, she should have already told you, but not every manager is forthright about that kind of thing.) But you might end up surprised by her answer.

However, this is important: If you think your boss might take this conversation as an opportunity to say, “Yeah, it’s not working out so let’s figure out an ending date,” then skip this. If you leave, it’s better for it to be on your terms and under your control. So if that’s a worry, I’d instead think about who else knows your work and would be able to give you an honest assessment. For example, if you have a good relationship with one of those more experienced people on your team, they might have a good perspective on the question. Pick someone who knows your work, has good judgment, and who you trust not to pull any punches.

And who knows, it’s possible that you’ll hear something that will change the way you’re looking at your situation. For example, you might hear that everyone in your role has projects reworked on occasion, or that you’re making a normal level of mistakes for your tenure in the job, or that the things that you thought were serious issues read as fairly minor ones to everyone else.

Or … not. You might hear that your concerns are well-grounded, and that you haven’t mastered the role to the extent that they need, and that it’s unlikely to happen at your current experience level.

No matter what you hear, though, you’re going to come out of this with more data, and that’s going to help you make a better decision about what to do next.

Of course, it’s worth saying that none of this matters if you’re miserable all the time at work. Chronic stress and plummeting self-esteem are perfectly good reasons to leave a job, no matter how satisfied other people might be with your work. But it’s possible that those feelings will be influenced by what you find out in this process.

Now, to your actual question (finally): If you do decide that you want to leave and look for something more junior with fewer responsibilities, there’s no shame in that. People do that! And you’re in the early stages of your career, which makes it even easier — it’s incredibly common not to have totally linear job progression in your 20s. You are normal.

And you can frame it to prospective future employers by saying something like this: “I learned a huge amount from taking on those responsibilities so early in my career. But I realized there was a downside to moving into that type of role so quickly; at times I struggled with not having more experience in X or Y, and it made me want to shore up my skills in those areas. That’s why I’m excited about the job with you.” By addressing it head-on like that, you should end up looking humble and self-aware, which are both good traits.

So if you do want to leave and take a step backward, it should be absolutely fine. Just get yourself that reality check first to make sure that your internal assessment really does reflect what’s happening.

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Ask a Boss: When Should I Admit I Can’t Do My Job?