By Yvonne Milosevic
Whether you’ve been on the job for a few weeks or a few years, things get tricky when the boss has different ideas of what your role should be. Maybe your duties have drifted far afield from the initial job description. Or, perhaps your supervisor wants to groom you for a new position you have no interest in. You might think your choices are either a: suck it up, or b: cut and run. But is there a third option?
Today, we tap some Harvard Business School experts for advice when your job turns into something you don’t recognize. In the Dear HBR podcast Unwanted Roles, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn bring in HBS professor Francesca Gino, author of Rebel Talent, to tackle this common workplace dilemma.
“We all have this attitude that we need to be the can-do guy, the person who says yes to the boss,” McGinn says. The trouble is, when we do that, we can end up taking on roles or projects we hate.
In each episode of Dear HBR, the hosts give advice to help solve the career quandaries submitted by conflicted professionals. While their situations are unique, the frustrations they share are universal. If you find yourself at a similar crossroads, this trio of gurus recommends the following tactics.
Step 1: Don’t make assumptions
Have you found yourself sidelined from projects or tasks you enjoy? Then you first need to find out whether the change is temporary or a permanent shift in responsibilities. “I am struck by how often we assume that others can read our mind,” says Gino. Is the company going through tough economic times? Are you doubling up on responsibilities to cover for a co-worker on medical leave? Or are they ogres who want to take advantage of you, the unwitting employee?
Next, give thought to whether the suggested new position or extra responsibilities might benefit your career down the road. “Sometimes we reflectively think that the company’s asking us to do this because it’s good for the company and it’s bad for us, but that’s not always the case,” McGinn says. “Sometimes, our boss has a really good sense of what might stretch us, what might put us on a new career path that could be really fulfilling.”
The only way to know for sure is to proceed to the next step.
Step 2: Have the uncomfortable conversation
First, find out why the powers-that-be think you should shift into this new role. “People make assumptions about the intentions and the reasons for why a boss or a person above them made a certain decision,” says Gino. Go in and test the assumptions, she suggests. “Be curious about what happened, and don’t be afraid to have an uncomfortable conversation. As soon as you start talking, you might learn that they’re not as uncomfortable as you thought,” she adds.
The goal is to understand the boss’s perspective without getting defensive. Ask the supervisor to lay out your future career path within the company if you take on these new responsibilities. Will it help you reach your desired position? What would happen if you decline to take them on? If the boss shares their thinking process, that enables you to weigh the situation more rationally.
When someone explains the why behind it, Gino says that it helps people get over the emotions or bruised egos quicker. Once you have more insight into their perspective, it’s time to decide how/whether you can make the new arrangement work for you.
Step 3: Explore solutions
In some cases, the best move is to take the long view of the situation. Think of it as a learning opportunity. Ask yourself if the company’s core values align with yours. If you respect the mission and want to continue working for them, taking on the other tasks might be worth it to grow in the job. Think, “This is taking one for the team a little bit, but if I do it well and I knock it out of the park, I’ll be even better at that job that I want in the future,” says Beard.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to go down that road, find a way to express your position without coming off as a Negative Nelly. If you’re unhappy and disgruntled, all you’re doing is making the work environment worse for your colleagues, Gino says.
Reiterate the skills and experience you bring to the job. Stress that you want to continue focusing on those elements of the position. Where possible, try to come up with a mutually beneficial alternative.
In the end, you may find that parting ways is the best solution. Have an honest conversation, cards on the table. Above all, try to leave on good terms with your boss. You can borrow this script from Gino, who suggests saying: “I really appreciate my time here, and I want to make sure that as I move to the next chapter, I’m not being disruptive. So, how is it that I can help with making sure there is a good transition?”
The conversation may be uncomfortable, but staying in a position you can’t stand is much worse. If you don’t see a future with your current company, it’s time to cut your losses and move on to greener pastures.