Most people are familiar with the five stages of grief. It’s often referenced by mental health professionals, and unfortunately, many of us have experienced these stages firsthand.
Virtually all major life events involve a similar pattern of emotional transitions that culminate in the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another. Career changes are certainly one of those major events.
Some workers change jobs or roles more often than others. Some work for one company their entire career, a rare feat in the modern age. I’ve worked for three companies in the 22 years since I graduated college. This suggests I’ve experienced this process twice now.
Let me stress that the type of psychological progression I’m referring to is not what happens after a layoff. It’s also not what happens when you work in a toxic job with no potential for advancement, and you’re simply forced to leave and move on. The change I’m referring to is the kind that, initially, you didn’t know you needed.
Since my current role involves managing others and recruiting talent to our firm, I can say that I’ve been on both sides of the table when it comes to career moves. It’s been interesting to watch both clients and prospective new hires go through the same mental process when approached with a new opportunity.
Stage One: Denial
Stage one of a career change, as in grief, is denial.
Both of my personal career changes involved being approached by an outside entity and being informed that I was missing out on a greater opportunity or not taking advantage of an available set of tools. I was told that the grass was greener on the other side, and at first, I dismissed it.
I didn’t want to accept that I was missing out. If I was, that would mean I’d need to make a big change. And change is hard! My family, friends, and colleagues were all set on the idea that this was the place for me. And so was I. Leaving would mean uncomfortable conversations and perhaps lost friendships.
No, I was definitely in the right place. No need to shake up my world unnecessarily. It was comforting to remind myself of all the great attributes of my current position: “We’ve got that great benefit I’d be giving up,” or “That new ad campaign everyone loves definitely validates that I’m in the right place.” Yes, that’s the end of that.
On second thought, “I have always wished that our company had the capability that this other firm has,” and “I have always felt jealous of the freedom this other platform has with their clients.” But boy, I really needed to put that out of my mind because those are the kinds of things that would lead to uncomfortable conversations and risk my current relationships and routines. “Not now!”
Indeed, stage one can last for many, many years!
Stage Two: Anger
The very exercise we all go through above brings about feelings of anger over the loss we’ve experienced. What have we lost? The old emotional connection to our current career.
What we used to take pride in, we now feel self-conscious about. What was once shiny and new is starting to seem out of vogue and in need of a makeover.
This can lead to anger. It might be pointed toward our employer: “Are we seriously still using this software? Our competitors dropped this 10 years ago!” or “Why am I not being compensated for the results I’m producing?” or “Why can’t anyone show me what my career track will look like!”
Stage Three: Bargaining
During stage three, we’ve already gazed into the abyss of the uncomfortable change that may need to happen, and we’re getting cold feet. That jump looks like a long way down, and we’re not sure we’ll land on our feet.
It seems like it’s time to come back to our senses and just hunker down and do our jobs. We begin bargaining with ourselves: “If we can just secure that new piece of business by the end of the quarter, things will be okay, and I’ll look past all the things I might be missing by making a move.”
But there’s a problem: Every time we get in our car and drive someplace, our mind begins to wander. We daydream about working someplace with the freedom to realize our ambitions and the tools to reach our potential, and it’s intoxicating.
This is our mind’s way of test-driving a potential change to get more and more comfortable with it. At this point, we haven’t realized it or admitted it fully to ourselves, but a career change is inevitable.
Stage Four: Depression
When it comes to a career change, this stage may not present as classic depression. But because we’ve experienced a loss in our identity and in the source of past pride, we are prone to sadness. We may feel more withdrawn, and we may have already taken stock of some of our work relationships and determined which ones exist only because of cubicle proximity and which ones will persist post-exit.
It’s at this stage that we may even take the calculated risk of confiding in one or more colleagues about what’s going on in our heads. This is very telling. We’re so devastated that we’re willing to risk being “outed” when it comes to our deep dark secret: that we’re thinking of defecting. We’ve been so isolated — depressed even — due to private thoughts that we need someone who relates to validate our feelings.
I have no way of knowing this for sure, but my guess is that it’s rare for someone to go through this process without spilling the beans to someone they work with, risky or not. It’s just so hard to do it alone. The feedback we receive from our confidant can just as easily hasten as delay our departure, depending on the reaction.
Stage 5: Acceptance
The final stage involves admitting to ourselves something we knew all along: We’re in the wrong place. At this stage, excitement replaces fear and anger, and you’ve crossed the point of no return.
By now, even if the initial opportunity to join another team fell through, you’d probably find another one quickly. Once you’ve made up your mind, you can never look at your current employer the same way, a juxtaposition that can make each passing day excruciating. Change will have to come at some point.
I’d be willing to bet that as many as half of all workers are in one of the five stages above. If not, they’ve found a terrific fit. They may have even found their final destination — a home that will last them until they retire from the workforce altogether. That’s a wonderful place to be.
So, which stage are you in?