"Should I stay or should I go?": 5 Questions to ask when deciding to leave your job

"It's always tease tease tease
You're happy when I'm on my knees
One day is fine and next is black
So if you want me off your back
Well come on an' let me know
Should I Stay or should I go?"

-"Should I stay or should I go", The Clash

Is it time to leave that job?

You've been working, grinding, hard, for 6 months. Maybe a year. Maybe several

Something happened recently. The kind of thing that makes a certain question pop to mind, sometimes fleetingly, passing by like all the deadlines and tasks and tweets that pepper our busy, always-on-the-move life, only to fade into its background hum. Sometimes that question sticks in the forefront of your mind, stewing. Ruminating. 

But that thing happened, and now you're asking yourself, "Should I stay at this job, or should I go?" 

  • "That thing" could be a confrontation at work that made you and the work you put in feel underappreciated or taken for granted.

  • "That thing" could be the moment you looked up from all the stress, paperwork, and nonsense you put up with and finally asked yourself, "Is this worth it?"

  • "That thing" could be that conversation you had with someone about that career path you always wanted, but set aside because it seemed way beyond your reach.

Whatever "that thing" is, one thing is clear: You're not so sure about this job anymore. But you're also not sure where to start in figuring out if it's the right time to make a change. Or if a change is needed at all. 

It's unclear. What we're going to discuss are some skills you can learn, in the form of four questions to help clarify your values, goals, and needs at this time. When you define your values, goals, and needs, and use them as a guide, you can make a more accurate assessment of your situation, and make a reasoned choice. We're going to do that by focusing on your job satisfaction.

A kick in the ass vs. your life passion: The two-factor theory of job satisfaction

The "Two-Factor Theory of Job Satisfaction," also called the "Motivation-Hygiene Theory," was developed by psychologist Frederick Herzberg over the course of his research on what motivates employees in the 60's and 70's. The theory is very simple--which leads to some problems we'll discuss below--but serves as a useful tool for thinking about your job satisfaction (you can find a link to one of his classic articles here).

Herzberg make a distinction between two factors that impact job satisfaction:

  • Hygiene factors: These are things like job security, how much you get paid, work conditions, vacations, policies and administration, the quality of supervision (do you like your boss?), status, and so forth. Herzberg also called these the "KITA," or "Kick In The Ass" factors, because they are the extrinsic incentives to make you do your job. #science

  • Motivators: These are all that things that make you actually want to do your job, such as having challenging tasks that make you think, getting recognition for your work, having cool responsibilities, being involved in making decisions, having a sense of purpose and meaning at your job, feeling that your job is helping you grow personally or professionally, etc. These are the intrinsic rewards you get from your job, and makes you feel passionate about it and enjoy what you're doing.

Senpai noticed me...

Senpai noticed me...

Herzberg adds an additional wrinkle to this framework:

  1. Being satisfied with your job is a different kind of experience from being dissatisfied with your job.

  2. Having your "hygiene" needs met does not increase satisfaction, but not having them met increases dissatisfaction.

  3. Having your "motivation" needs met by themselves does not decrease dissatisfaction, but having them increases satisfaction.

To get a better idea of what this looks like, I drew up a diagram to help illustrate (yay powerpoint!).

The relationship between Hygiene Factors/Motivators and Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction, Illustrated (non-swimsuit edition).

You can have a job that gives you really good pay, great benefits, and with a really convenient commute from where you live to boot. You may even have good relationships with your co-workers, and your boss, although a bit strict sometimes, is an ok gal or guy. And yet, what you are actually doing at your job, what you get out of it, is... and I quote, "Ok, I guess." You are not dissatisfied with your job, but you don't exactly feel satisfied.

Inversely, you can have a job that feels really meaningful, where you believe you are making a difference, where your co-workers and supervisors value you and your input, and feel you are growing as a person and a professional each day. This is very satisfying work! It's what got you into this field to begin with and drives your passion. It's also what keeps you thinking about the interesting problems that come up, and the creative solutions you develop to address them.

At the same time, you realize those health benefits you were promised aren't really measuring up (I thought there was dental, where's the friggin' dental??). The pay was ok at first, but now you're realizing it's getting harder to "keep the lights on," and be able to enjoy leisurely activities. And that commute! Is it worth it driving to that train stop, then take that bus, and finally walk those extra twenty minutes to work? Over time, your dissatisfaction with this job just keeps building, and building, and building...

Hygiene + Motivation = Attitude.

Herzberg's theory led to a lot of research on job satisfaction, and serves as a really useful rubric for thinking about how to feel about our jobs. The two-factor theory has been criticized, however, for missing one very important component: our individual values and goals. Depending on the situation, our life circumstances, and our goals, we may place a higher value on having job security, pay, and good benefits. We may be willing to sacrifice those things to pursue our life passions and dreams. Or, we draw a line in the sand, and say to ourselves that we won't settle for anything less than a job that really motivates us to get up in the morning and puts food on the table. What we personally want at a given point in time is an important--and often forgotten--factor in this kind of decision making.

What we're going to do for the rest of this post, is use Herzberg's model as a guide to walk you through 5 questions to ask yourself when deciding to leave (or take!) a job. You can use this free handout to jot down your thoughts in tandem. You can write on it using PowerPoint, or delete the text box in the middle and print it out.

1. What are the objective hygiene factors of the job?

Speaking concretely and objectively, regardless of your feelings about it, what kind of job security, wages, work conditions (Do you have an office? Share a cubicle?), and policies does the job have? How would you describe the quality of the supervision you receive? How does your boss relate to you and others? What kind of position do you have in this job? Write these down, one by one.

Remember, these are the extrinsic factors at do not necessarily increase your satisfaction with the job, but if they are not up to par, not having them can lead to greater dissatisfaction with the job.

After you've written these down, rate them as a whole on a scale of 0-10, with "0" meaning they are very poor, and "10" indicating that they are excellent and of high quality.

2. What are the objective motivators of the job?

Once again, speaking honestly and objectively for yourself, do you enjoy this job? Does it challenge you and make you think? Does it involve you in decision making and let you have meaningful responsibility? In what ways does the job help you grow as a person, or help grow your career?

Remember, these are the intrinsic factors that make the job feel rewarding. Not having these needs for fulfillment met may not by themselves make you feel dissatisfied with your job, but having them may lead to increased satisfaction with your choices.

Again, after you've written these down, rate them as a whole on scale of 0-10. "0" here means that the job is not motivating at all, while "10" represents the idea that you are doing your "dream job," what you love and want to do.

3. What value do you place on being paid well?

Now things start to get interesting. So far I've asked you to think about, as objectively as you can, about the extrinsic and intrinsic dimensions of the job. Of course, our subjective inclinations and perceptions are going to affect this to a degree. What this next step asks you to do is take a step back and reflect on your own wants and goals, starting with the following:

How important is it for you, at this point in your life, to have a job that pays well? What does "pays well" mean to you right now? Are having a competitive benefits package important to you, and if so, what kind? Do you need a highly structured job where you receive direct, ongoing feedback, or a more laissez-faire work environment where you are allowed more freedom and self-direction?

Write down all those structural qualities of the job you want, and then rate how important it is for you that a job have these qualities, from 0-10. "0" meaning they do not matter to you at all, and "10" meaning that you have no flexibility, and will not take, or will need to leave, a job that does not have each of these components. 

4. What value do you place on having a job that drives you?

Once again, I want you to reflect on what is important to you. 

What are the things that really drive you in your work at its best? What gets the gears turning with excitement? What helps you grow, mature, and learn in your ideal job?

Write down all of those creative and rewarding qualities of the job you want, and then rate how important it is for you that a job have these qualities, from 0-10. "0" meaning they do not matter to you at all, and "10" meaning that you have no flexibility, and will not settle for anything less that your life passion.

5. What is your (immediate) action plan?

First, a word about making ratings, including ratings of your values and feelings.

When we struggle with making a decision related to work, we are sometimes assailed by so many different feelings and thoughts that we become paralyzed. Being able to assign a number to how intensely we hold a value, thought, or belief, we not only quantify it somewhat, but also learn to notice the gradations in how strongly we feel or think that way. It helps provide some much needed clarity, especially when caught in an emotional maelstrom (2nd and 3rd page in the handout).

What helps further organize these now quantified thoughts and feelings about your job (or a prospective job), is to create a pros and cons list. Pros and cons for leaving the current job, and pros and cons for staying at the job (at least for now). When we follow each of these steps, we help ourselves slow down and think. Making an impulsive, brash decision often finds its way back to bite us in the hind quarters. Really thinking it through lets us take one first, immediate step forward.

Given the objective qualities of the job, how much you value your material and professional goals, and the pros and cons of leaving/staying, what could be one clear step you can take right now?

This is something as straightforward as simply continuing in your job, and looking for other job postings online. Or, talking with a friend who is doing a job closer to the kind you envision for yourself. Alternatively, you might decide that there are enough reasons to keep and continue in the current job, that you will take a step toward improving your current job situation, be it by verbalizing your concerns to a supervisor, or making an appropriate "ask."

Taking a simple, concrete, and delineated step can move you forward, while at the same time, paradoxically, slowing you down and preventing you from making a hasty decision.

Conclusion: Thinking through your wants, needs, and goals

We've all been there. At some point or another we've had "that thing" happen. Sometimes that makes us feel down, or even angry, and are more likely to make a decision based solely on our emotions, instead of a thorough assessment of our thoughts and feelings in the situation. That decision might be to continue at the job out of fear or a sense of hopelessness. That decision might be to fantasize about a "dramatic exit," or even carry one out.

Making the decision to stay or leave your job ultimately shouldn't be based on an single incident, even one that tops of a series of little moments of dissatisfaction, or lack of satisfaction. You should make those decisions based on what you really want.

And identifying your wants and needs is the first step to acting wisely, and with integrity, in honoring your goals.