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Richard Kyte: Why do so many Americans regret changing jobs?

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Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

About 40 million American workers left their jobs in 2021. And so far, five months into 2022, the Great Resignation shows no sign of slowing down.

A common explanation for why so many people have been changing jobs is that they were already dissatisfied; the pandemic provided an opportunity to make a move they had long been putting off. The expectation was that, once the dust settled, most workers would be happier.

That turns out not to be the case.

Several recent surveys suggest that many of those who changed jobs in the past two years now regret their decision. Depending on what study you believe, the figure is somewhere between 30% and 70% of workers who wish they had stayed put.

Some blame their new employers for making false promises, exaggerating the positives and downplaying the negatives in their desperation to fill open positions. Others reach the conclusion that there just aren’t that many satisfying jobs out there. But I think the likeliest reason for the “Great Regret” is the simple truth that most people don’t really know what they want.

The biggest decisions we make in life are whether to say “yes” or “no” to new opportunities. The answer we give means entering into new relationships and ending old ones or recommitting to old relationships in ways that could be more productive and meaningful.

There are no sure guidelines for making such decisions, because the effects on our future lives are too remote and interconnected with other factors. But there are some basic distinctions to keep in mind and some questions we can ask to help us decide what is most likely to be best.

The first thing to do is distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.

Extrinsic rewards are things such as pay and benefits, workplace setting, and position title. They are important, but not necessarily fulfilling.

Intrinsic rewards are the things that tend to make a person feel good about what they do, such as seeing their work as important, having a say in how it is done and working among friends.

Too often people consider only the extrinsic factors (like a boost in pay or a better benefit package), and then are surprised when the new job turns out to be disappointing. That is because, in general, a lack of extrinsic rewards can make a job miserable, but a surplus of extrinsic rewards does not make a job satisfying. In short, what makes a job satisfying is not the same as what pays the bills.

So, how do we sort through the options when considering a major life change? Something I have found helpful is to think about the two dimensions of human growth: vertical and horizontal. Will the opportunity I am considering help me to grow in both depth and breadth? And how will those dimensions of growth affect my personal, professional, and social life?

When considering personal growth, some good questions to ask are: How will the change affect me intellectually? Will it provide opportunities for deeper knowledge of myself and the world around me? Also, how will the change affect me spiritually? Will it inspire me to higher aspirations while allowing me to be grounded in commitments to what is most important in life?

When it comes to professional growth, one might consider the following: Will I be able to learn things that allow me to be more competent, focused and useful? And how will the change affect my leadership potential? Will I be able to develop relationships with those who can mentor me? Will I have opportunities for greater responsibility and deeper insight into how organizations function?

When it comes to social growth, it is important to consider these questions: How will the change affect my friendships? Will I have opportunities to enter into adventures with others that allow us to grow together in our affections and commitments? And how will the change affect my greater self? Will the opportunity expand my sense of who I am so I feel connected to a larger and more meaningful world?

McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc asked the question, “Are you green and growing or ripe and rotting?” It is the essential question.

Over the years I have had great privilege of teaching thousands of people as they were preparing for a career. Some were looking forward to their first full-time job, others were mid-career, coming back to college to complete their bachelor’s degree or earn a master’s degree, getting ready for what would come next.

It is usually easy to see who will be successful and who will struggle, and it has little to do with grades. It has to do with their attitude toward life, whether they ask the right sorts of questions.

Asking the right questions doesn’t guarantee happiness. Nothing does that. But it does mean one is more likely to make the sorts of choices that will keep one growing and less likely to fall into regret.



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