Feeling bored or restless at work? Try clarifying your goals and values.

I am having more and more conversations with clients lately about motivation in the workplace:

“I’ve been doing what I’m doing for more than a decade, and I’ve mastered the skills needed inside of this division. I’m getting bored. Maybe I’ll start my own company.”

“Should I stay with my current company, focus on my side hustle, or return that headhunter’s call?”

Listening to people I care about tell these stories got me thinking about how we get ourselves into a situation where we feel bored, restless, unsatisfied or otherwise detached from work. And yes, I realize that the stresses of working in these tumultuous times might be the driving factor for many. But that’s not what I am talking about here. On reflection, I see three common patterns that contribute to motivational malaise in people’s careers.

One is chronic goal chasing. We do a good job on one assignment, so we’re asked to take on bigger and more complex assignments. We readily say yes, eager to “advance,” especially when the requests come from influential people in our organizations. Pursuing increasingly larger goals isn’t a bad thing. But chasing them without having made conscious choices to pursue them can lead, over time, to deep regrets about past career choices and leave us feeling adrift in our careers.

This is similar to the second: putting yourself on career autopilot, where we unwittingly outsource our career path to others. The most common cliches are about climbing the corporate ladder because that is what we assume (or are implicitly taught) leads to success.

The third pattern is performance conversations that focus too much on the needs of the company. Maybe you’ve had an annual goal planning conversation that started like this, “Michael, great job last year. This year, our division goal is X, and so we expect you to do Y.” Talking about what matters to our company is important and necessary. But it’s incomplete. The other part that’s needed is a conversation about what matters to you, the employee.

What’s common across these patterns is that the conversation is focused on what the company cares about. My belief is that it is healthier for the manager (or employer) and employee to take a collaborative approach to managing performance, development and career. This means both parties make the effort to explore what is at the intersection of what matters to both – and then make mutually beneficial plans based on the common ground.

It takes real effort and trust to have these kinds of balanced, meaningful conversations on a continuous basis. Whether for yourself or for someone else, here are three approaches that can help.

 First, clarify what matters to you.

One way is to dialogue with a trusted partner. Together, explore topics like what goals are most important to you, what you would like to have more (or less) of in your work life. Keep in mind that you can have these dialogues in a short-term context: “Given this challenge you’re facing right now, what’s important to you?” Or in a longer-term context: “As you plan the next phase of your career, what really matters to you?” If you are more introverted (like me) you might find journaling an easier way to get started.

Whichever approach you try, be sure not to stop at the first insights you have. Persist until you have a high-resolution picture of your goals and values. You don’t need a wordy personal mission statement. Often, the clearest goals are often the ones that can be articulated simply.

Next, communicate your goals and values proactively.

It can be as straightforward as asking for five minutes of time at the start of your next performance or career planning conversation to explain your goals and values. You could also take look for impromptu opportunities to share in unstructured settings, like over lunch (remember doing that?!).

 Let people know how your development goals are connected to what matters to you. Do you want to take on a stretch assignment with the global account team? Great. Make sure people also know that helping people overcome conflicting priorities to find common ground is part of your DNA because you value teamwork and promoting diversity.

You can continue doing this even during performance reviews. One of the many unique things about working at PFC is that we tell stories about how we used our values at work during every formal performance and development conversation. We also routinely ask others what they would like to improve to be more like their true selves in the future. When done in a safe environment it can be incredibly powerful for the speaker and the listener.

Last, use your goals and values as a lens for making conscious career choices.

How will you evaluate whether a new internal job assignment or an external job offer gives you more of what you value? A programmer who values continuous learning is not likely to fulfill that need by taking a higher paying job managing legacy platforms that are in maintenance mode. Having a clear sense of what you want and why you want it helps you make better decisions about how to get where you want to go.

 Last year I had a chance to watch an interview with Jason Koop. He is the head coach for CTS-Ultrarunning and an author of Training Essentials for Ultrarunning. When asked about the characteristics of successful endurance athletes, he said people who make it through training and to the end of a 160-km race are not the ones who say they are in it for the physical challenge. The people who succeed are the ones who have an intrinsic reason for ultrarunning in the first place. Koop says that having a broader purpose for ultrarunning is the most important factor for staying motivated through the most grueling parts of preparing for and running the race.

Completing a career is like an endurance sport. So, if you want is to be satisfying, make the effort to clarify what matters to you as early in the race as possible.

Thanks for reading this article. You can find a list of my other posts by clicking here. I invite you to join people from 30 other countries around the world to the latest episodes of Humans At Work, my podcast that gives you fresh perspectives and actionable ideas for making working with other humans better for everyone.

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