Why Smart Guys Get Stuck in Ruts -- and What to Do About It

It's common for workers to feel as though they are in a rut. That malaise often can be temporary, though.
It's common for workers to feel as though they are in a rut. That malaise often can be temporary, though. (Adobe stock image)

You've been working at the same job for seven years. It's a good job, but not a great job. The pay is OK, and there is room at the top to aspire to promotion. Your colleagues aren't bad, either. But you just don't feel the same energy when you get ready for work in the morning or the same drive to excel. Some days, you even feel like you're phoning it in.

Economic uncertainty getting you down? Seven-year itch? Midlife crisis? Or maybe you're just stuck in a rut. You don't feel ambitious enough to climb out of it, and it's too scary to leave a secure job in such insecure times.

Why Do We Feel Stuck?

There are several reasons why you may feel stuck -- some that have to do with you, and others with the way we work in America. Maybe you've been doing the same thing for too long. Maybe top management encourages you to live in fear of losing your job, so you scurry around looking busy to make sure they think you are working hard.

The No. 1 reason guys feel stuck is fear. This is the fear that agitating for change will get you fired or noticed as a troublemaker. It's the fear that making waves of any kind will be seen as too disruptive and make you look bad. Many guys keep their heads down, hoping to simply do their jobs and escape unscathed -- and unnoticed -- so they live to work another day. After a decade of keeping your head down, it's hard to look up and keep your eyes on the prize.

Close behind fear is boredom. You can't help but be bored when you've been doing the same job for years, with no new challenges or opportunities.

Fear and boredom often combine to produce individual inertia, a chronic aversion to taking new challenges for fear of failure, of standing out in a bad way. Part of this is because of our mistaken belief in The Peter Principle -- that people in organizations tend to rise to their levels of incompetence. Turns out the Peter Principle is wrong, and most people are quite competent in their positions.

What we often assume is that fear and boredom are psychological states of individual experience. That they are, but they are also the result of how we organize our corporations.

In a classic study in organizational behavior, Harvard University professor Chris Argyis found that male midlevel managers rarely, if ever, talked about the big picture in corporate meetings. Rather, they focused almost exclusively on small details. They felt, rightly it turned out, that top management was too frightened to raise the big questions, such as:

  • What exactly are we doing here?
  • What do we want to be doing?
  • How are we going to organize ourselves to do it?

No one ever posed the big questions. Asking them puts everything up for grabs, jeopardizes their position and makes them too uncertain about their role in the company. Better, they felt, to sweat the small stuff. At least that way, everyone seems to be needed.

But only sweating the small stuff turns out to be a recipe for what social scientists call anomie -- that feeling of not really knowing where you are, what your larger vision is and what the whole point is. That sense of anomie is what underlies sometimes feeling bored in your job. It's not that you are bored; it's that the circumstances are boring. Any rational person would be bored.

How to Get Out of Your Rut

Just because boredom and fear are cultivated by our corporate environments doesn't mean you're off the hook. You can change it.

We live by metaphors, and many of the ones we use to describe our working lives are of transportation. We're "stuck in a rut" or "spinning our wheels." We're not "on track." Here are three strategies to help you get out of your career rut, taken from what you do if your car is stuck in a real rut:

Rock gently back and forth.

If you've ever been stuck in a real rut, you know that moving your car back and forth, just a little, can get you some momentum. Add small, easily doable chunks of work and responsibility. Not too much; just enough to get your juices flowing again.

Back up a little to get enough traction to get out.

Help out a colleague below you, become a mentor and remember what it is like to be doing the work that reports to you. Often, remembering how you got to where you are is a good way to remember why you are where you are.

Don't gun it and hope to blast your way out.

You may be tempted to shake things up by trying to force sudden, dramatic change. Don't. Not only will you spin your wheels, you'll risk damaging important relationships. Instead, try new tactics. Instead of emailing people, drop by their office. Instead of trying to force things to go your way, ask yourself, "What new possibilities emerge from where I am right now?" You may find the real answer isn't about moving in the direction you originally thought after all.

Feeling like you are in a rut also comes from putting too much weight on your work -- often at the expense of the counterbalancing pull of your family and marriage. Sometimes, retreating back home and reconnecting with your spouse and kids may be just the sort of revitalization you need to return to work ready to give it your best.

Remember, in the world of your career, you are the engine that propels the vehicle.

Prof. Michael Kimmel is a sociologist who is among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today and the author or editor of more than 20 volumes, including his latest, "Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men."

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