I’ve been at my job for almost two years now, and in the industry for a while. My team has gone through a lot of changes, including two reorganizations, several changes in upper-level leadership, and I was reassigned to a different manager. I’ve heard many times that we’re just in the middle of a transitional period — that soon we’re going to be working on great things. I’ve been patient, and I keep trying to be optimistic about my work.
I consistently receive very positive performance reviews, and I’m trusted to get my work done and establish positive relationships with my teammates and clients. But over the last nine or so months, the work that I wanted to be doing (and was hired to do) hasn’t materialized, and I’ve been pulled onto projects with other managers in areas that aren’t my desired focus. Meanwhile, my teammates and junior teammates are put on the projects that I’ve been asking for all along.
In some ways, this could be considered positive — it means that I’m trusted beyond my manager’s team and have a good reputation. It could also mean that my manager doesn’t feel like I’m a good fit for my job, although that hasn’t been stated in any performance review. Mainly, it means that I’ve been doing work I am not especially invested in, and I don’t feel like my career is gaining much by doing these projects.
I’ve spoken to my manager, and she knows the kind of work I’d like to be doing and has agreed that I should be doing it. But time after time, I see other colleagues being put on projects that are in line with my own career goals, and I am asked to do work that doesn’t move me forward. There’s no clear path to promotion, and due to the way that work is handled on my team, I don’t know what projects I’m slated to be on later in the year.
I have started to think that if I don’t start to see changes in the work I’m doing, or understand what it would take to move forward, I need to move on. What’s the best way to approach this with my manager? I don’t want to walk into the room and start with “Give me better work or I’m outta here,” even if that is how I’m starting to feel.
It’s one thing to be flexible while the organization is working through changes; sometimes that’s just how things go. But nine months of doing work you don’t want to do and weren’t hired to do? That’s an awfully long time to be waiting.
It would be one thing if those projects just didn’t exist. That would be something your manager should raise with you proactively so you could both figure out how to proceed, but it would at least be understandable. But it sounds like that work does exist. It’s just getting assigned to other people.
You’re absolutely right to be thinking about whether you need to move on. Everyone goes through bumpy periods at work, and you don’t want to jump ship over a short period of unfulfilling work, but this has gone on long enough. It’s reasonable to think the situation might not change anytime soon, and that going somewhere else to do the work you really like is the best option.
For what it’s worth, a few different things could be going on here:
1. Your boss thinks you’re valuable right where you are, and doesn’t want to lose your work on the projects she’s put you on. Or she thinks you’re generally reliable and accommodating, and she knows she can move you where she needs you most without you pushing back too much. If this is what’s happening, it’s short-sighted; people who are treated like this will eventually leave over their dissatisfaction and the manager will lose the person they were trying to hold onto.
2. Your manager doesn’t think you’re well-suited for the work you’ve asked to do, but is too much of a wimp to tell you that. From what you’ve seen of her, is she a straight shooter who’s comfortable with having hard conversations? Or have you seen signs she’s not always straight with people, especially when it comes to messages people might not be thrilled to hear?
3. You haven’t been as clear with your manager as you think. Sometimes people really soft-pedal a message, and then they get frustrated when things don’t work out. How clear and direct have you been with your boss? Did you say something like, “It’s important to me to do work on XYZ, and that’s what I came on board to do. Could we talk about a timeline for moving me to those projects?” Or was it closer to, “I’m really interested in XYZ, if there’s ever an opportunity to take that on.” The second example will sometimes get filed away in a manager’s head as “If I ever need Jane to take on XYZ, she can do it” — rather than as “This is really important to Jane and it’s something we need to address.”
Similarly, how recently did you speak with her about it? It you had one conversation with her a year ago and haven’t brought it up since then, it might not be on her mind.
Whatever is happening behind-the-scenes, it’s worth going back and talking to your manager again. Make sure you’re being clear and direct and not hiding or couching your message — be direct and say what you really want! That doesn’t mean saying, “Give me different work or I’m out of here” verbatim — but you can communicate that sentiment indirectly, in a way where any decent manager will understand that’s the subtext.
Say something like this: “I know we’ve talked in the past about my desire to focus on XYZ. I’ve of course been willing to help out in other areas while the organization has gone through so many changes, but I’d like to make my way back to XYZ in the near future. That’s the work I came here to do, and it’s really where I want to focus my career. Could you give me a sense of whether that’s something we’ll be able to make happen?”
If she tells you that yes, it’s going to happen, then you’ll want to be ready to talk specifics: “What is the process for getting that to happen, and what do you think is a realistic timeline?”
If you get answers that are vague or non-committal, then say this: “It’s really important to me to have a clear plan for this. Is there a way to make that happen, or is that just not practical right now?”
The tone you want here isn’t “Do what I say or else!” It’s “I want to understand what is and isn’t likely, so that I have a realistic understanding of the situation.”
If your manager is paying attention at all, she’s going to understand the subtext here is “I need to understand the situation so that I can decide if I can meet my career goals here, or whether I’ll need to leave in order to do that.”
It might be that this conversation nudges your boss into realizing that you’re serious about working for her, and she needs to act if she wants to keep you. Or it might be that you do need to leave in order to do the work you like. That wouldn’t be ideal, but it’s so much better to know that, so you can proceed accordingly. Hopefully, this conversation will help you figure that out.
Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.