Are you suffering from Stockholm syndrome in your career?

“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong.” — N. R. Narayana Murthy

I know a disproportionately large number of people who feel trapped in their careers (or jobs) which they seem to hate (I was about to say ‘do not like’ but ‘hate’ is a more accurate depiction). Many of these are highly capable people with stellar backgrounds and accomplishments. However, surprisingly, a good portion of them do not take any action to remedy their situation and continue to suffer. Much of their behaviour makes analogy with Stockholm syndrome rather uncanny. Stockholm Syndrome refers to the tendency of the kidnapped to develop emotional and sympathetic connection with the kidnapper.

Why do I say that they are unhappy?

  • They constantly feel that meritocracy is compromised in their organization — whether meritocracy is actually compromised or it is just their perception — is moot here because the person’s suffering on this count is real
  • They see that mediocrity is celebrated and perpetuated
  • They are not able to see how what they are tasked to accomplish aligns with their company’s strategy — they feel much of their work does not create real value to the firm
  • It is not clear as to what it takes to progress their career — they see little consistency between what is being asked of them and how it is being valued
  • They are often given responsibility without empowerment
  • They see themselves spending most of their time dealing with bureaucracy
  • They see senior management high on talk and low on execution etc

Most of these may come across as rants from frustrated employees who have a glorified impression of their own contributions to their organizations. And that is partially true… but it is equally true that many of these points are true reflections of culture at many organizations. Most leaders of these (typically large) organizations have only one thing on their mind — their own career progress — if organization progresses while they are progressing in their careers, that is largely incidental.

It is important to realize that this is a natural consequence of our evolutionary make-up. Survival instincts are visceral and fundamental to all living things, including humans. Mutual respect, trust, integrity etc are very recent concepts in human evolution and their existence or need is limited to the extent of their support to the primary instinct of survival.

People do things that ensure and promote their survival. Leaders in organizations are no different. Their primary focus is their own survival and growth. If this requires them to develop people under them, then the leaders will focus on developing people under them. If the “optics” of developing people under them is good enough, most leaders would get away by just doing that — just manage the optics. Behaviour of people, including leaders, is driven by incentives.

In general, only in smaller organizations, there is a chance that leaders may have to rely on developing people under them to ensure their own progress. In larger organizations, this may be true up until mid-management. Once leaders move into senior management positions, their progress is largely reliant on managing relationships with their peers and their seniors. So, they is not much incentive in developing people under them. This is neither wrong nor right. This is just how things work.

Now back to Stockholm Syndrome. Many of these otherwise capable people (typically folks at mid-management level) — given that their careers until then were built on value creation and meritocracy AND given the sacrifices and investments that they have made into building their career with the organization until then — they expect and wait for progress. They give benefit of doubt to the organization while not realizing that what got them there may not take them further. After continuing like this for a couple of years, they become stuck. They develop inertia, their confidence wanes, their skills start to become blunt and obsolete — their value tends to be more institutional knowledge and relationships which are less marketable outside the firm. They tend to lose drive and become cynical and continue with their insipid careers.

If you are in this situation, I can think of two ways to deal with this:

  • Reset your expectations of what it takes to further your career from here on. See if your personality (values, principles etc) agrees with the traits required to move further. If not, either make peace with your reduced career prospects and not let unnecessary frustrations creep in. Or move to a different organization — likely a smaller one — use your capabilities to help that firm progress and thereby, bring back vitality into your career
  • If your personal circumstances (like family, age, energy levels etc) allow, start seriously considering an alternative career. This is hard and risky but can be more fulfilling. For my part, I chose the alternative path and while it is early days — it is definitely very fulfilling.

These two options need not be mutually exclusive. While one makes peace with the prospects of their current jobs/career, one can develop skills for alternate and also create required financial cushion.

To conclude, one of the biggest sources of frustration in life is being stuck in an unpleasant situation — whether it be in a traffic jam, bad city, bad job, bad marriage…… So, it just makes sense to work feverishly on getting unstuck or better yet, not get stuck at all.

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