STARTING a new job is often a hopeful experience. In the weeks leading up to your first day, you’re likely to think about the impact you’ll make, the relationships you’ll form and the ways in which you’ll succeed. However, the first few weeks in the new position may be disappointing and many people may wonder at that point if they made the right decision.
This unpleasant transition from hopes and dreams to reality makes sense from a psychological perspective. Research on construal level theory has suggested that we treat things further away from us, in time or physical distance, more abstractly than things that are close up. Before you start a new job, you’re often more focused on the abstract potential than on the actual tasks you’ll be doing. Once you’re in the new position, you may be mired in the day-to-day specifics, which may make it harder to see the contribution you hoped to make.
You’re also often focused on the desirable characteristics of a new job before you start. That can create a motivational state called a promotion focus, which makes you more sensitive to positive things in your environment. But once you start work and there are responsibilities you have to deal with, you’re more likely to adapt a prevention focus, which naturally focuses on the negative things. The perfect job doesn’t feel as perfect anymore.
This disappointment can make you feel like the new position is a mistake. Sometimes a position isn’t a right fit. So how do you tell the difference between normal disappointment and signs that the job truly isn’t working out? Before you decide that you should look for something new, there are three things to consider.
- Imposter syndrome and the learning curve
One reason why the new job may feel wrong is that there are elements you feel unprepared for. Of course, you don’t know the policies and procedures of the new workplace, and it will take time to get accustomed to them. But there will also be tasks that you don’t know how to do. Many people in new positions suffer from a variation of imposter syndrome, in which they feel like they’ve risen into a position they’re not qualified to take. That can make you feel as though the tasks you don’t know how to do are a sign that you shouldn’t be in the job at all.
It is important to ask for help with new tasks early on and to assume that everyone believes learning is a fundamental part of succeeding in the new position. When you feel bad that you aren’t performing well, treat that as an opportunity for growth rather than a sign that you are failing. Even if you adopt this kind of growth mindset, your progress will likely be slower than you want it to be. A well-studied phenomenon in psychology is the learning curve, in which you make fast initial progress when learning something new, but when it comes time to get polished at the details of what you are learning, your progress slows down.
When the learning curve flattens out, it is often hard to detect progress and you may begin to feel like you are not cut out for the job. Instead, find some metrics that allow you to measure what you are accomplishing and learning. Keep a log of your performance so that you can determine whether you are actually making progress, even when you feel like you’re not.
- Values alignment
Even when you feel like you’re succeeding at the individual tasks of the job, you may find the overall work unsatisfying. One of the hardest things to figure out about a company during the application and interview process is the set of underlying values the firm promotes. While research has shown that there are universal values across cultures, each person and organisation emphasize different ones. Cultures promote particular values, but individuals adopt values based on their underlying personality characteristics and their experiences.
For example, some people value benevolence, in which they want to do good things for other people, while others value achievement, in which they want to be recognised for their success. Some people value tradition and want to uphold the way things have always been done, while others value hedonism and want to experience pleasure.
If you work for a company that promotes different values than the ones you hold, then you’re likely to feel unsettled and dissatisfied at work. It can take time to determine whether there is a match between the company’s values and your own, so don’t jump to conclusions. If you do detect a significant mismatch, it could be a sign that you may want to consider working elsewhere.
- Resistance to change
You certainly don’t want to make a hasty decision about whether a new job is a good fit. It can take several months to determine whether you are progressing in what you need to learn to be good at your job. Also, it takes time to really understand the values of the firm you work for.
If you’ve been working for six months to a year and feel the job is a poor fit for you, then you also have to be willing to act. Because of a status quo bias, we have a tendency to stick with bad decisions for too long, whether they are poor investments, bad relationships or a job that isn’t a good fit. We don’t like making changes because doing so requires admitting an error and facing uncertainty (while the status quo is a known option).
Build some energy to make a change. Find an adviser, mentor or coach to help you with this process. Often, the fear that comes with choosing an uncertain option will look worse to you than it does to someone else. A mentor can help you to see the advantages of making a change and can give you advice for navigating the uncertainty that comes from choosing a new path.
Even when you’re hopeful about a new job, it is normal to experience some disappointment at first. Think carefully about what you’re experiencing so you can distinguish what’s your brain adjusting to the new situation and what are true signs that it is time to cut your losses and move on.
This article first appeared in the Harvard Business Review.