12 Reasons You Won’t Quit Your Job in International Development

by Shana Montesol Johnson

Why do international development professionals stay in jobs that they don’t enjoy, don’t play to their strengths, don’t align with their values, and don’t make them happy? I have observed 12 reasons.

My list of reasons is sparked by an intriguing piece on “Why You Won’t Quit Your Job” that I read recently on the Harvard Business Review blog. In it, Daniel Gulati describes three reasons why people (mostly in corporate America) don’t quit jobs that they actively dislike:

  1. Your job has conditioned you to respond to random rewards. Even the most miserable jobs provide some rewards. The thing is, they’re so unpredictable, that you may find yourself waiting around for the next random dole-out.
  2. You fear failing – and everyone knowing about it. Most humans are risk-averse. Gulati argues that in this day and age of social media, we avoid risks even more because we fear everyone finding out about it.
  3. You accumulate small wins and call it progress. Research has shown that small wins can help us achieve big results – I even wrote about it here. But racking up small wins may give you a sense of progress that could keep you engaged for too long in the wrong game.

While intriguing, these three reasons have not come up very often in the many conversations I’ve had with coaching clients and friends working in international development about “Should I stay or should I go?” I have heard different reasons. Here are the top 12 reasons that international development professionals stay in jobs that don’t fit them:

  1. You don’t want to let your colleagues down. If you work in international development, you probably work as part of a team, or closely with colleagues and partners. Over time, you come to know your co-workers, and if you’re lucky, even become friends with them. When you think of leaving your job you may worry about the impact of your departure on your colleagues. “Will they have a heavier workload? Will they know how to do X process? Will they have trouble with that high-maintenance stakeholder who only I could calm?”
  2. You feel loyal to your boss. Conventional wisdom about career transitions says that “people don’t leave a job, they leave a boss.” (I am still looking for a quantifiable study or source to cite on this!) On the flip side, if you’re lucky enough to have a boss you actually like and feel loyal to, it’s that much harder to walk away.
  3. You believe in the mission of your organization/job. There may be aspects of your job that you dislike, but you are committed to the mission of your organization. You feel your work is important, and needed. You worry about what would happen to your project – and the communities participating in it – if you left.
  4. You feel lucky to “have a job at all” in “this economy.” The uncertainty of finding a new job amidst the gloomy media updates about the global economy can keep you in a “safe” job that you actively dislike. (What helps in this situation is to have some “social proof” – do you know people who have successfully landed new jobs “even in this economy”?)
  5. You don’t know what job you’d rather have. The HBR blog post gives examples of people who were clear on what work they wanted to do instead of the job they had – and they still had trouble leaving their current jobs. If you are uncertain about what you want to do next, it’s even more difficult to leave.
  6. Quitting certain jobs looks like failure. Many Peace Corps volunteers who contemplate quitting agonize over the decision, as Alanna Shaikh has written about. When they call it “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” it makes it pretty hard to leave. There are many other jobs in development, particularly overseas postings, that you believe reflect your competence, toughness, and “field cred.” You fear that quitting would call into question how you are viewed by others (and maybe even yourself).
  7. You want to leave a legacy. Maybe you haven’t reached certain milestones on your current project, or perhaps you want to personally complete a certain phase. If you just haven’t gotten much traction on the job yet, you may wonder, “If I quit now, what will I have to show for being in this job?”
  8. You dislike your job, but enjoy living in your current location. For expat aid workers, the job may not be so great, but you might really like the country you’re in. If you quit your job, it would be hard to remain in your current location. If your partner/spouse/family likes it there as well, you are much less likely to rock the boat.
  9. You think that you can’t get another job that will pay as well or provide as many benefits. Maybe you have a mortgage or student loans to pay off. Maybe you’re an expat aid worker with kids, and you receive a full expat package with tuition benefits. If you leave your job, you may not be able to find another one that compensates you as well as your current one. Or maybe you can. (But your assumption that you can’t will definitely keep you in the same job.)
  10. You’re hoping your next job assignment will be better. If you work for an organization that regularly shuffles its staff around the world, from assignment to assignment, then to leave your current post before your time is up would pretty much mean leaving your organization. Maybe you don’t want to quit your employer, just your current gig. So instead, you wait it out – and do what you can to improve your current situation.
  11. You don’t have the time or energy to search for a job and start over again in a new place. The thought of revising your résumé makes your stomach churn. You think of “networking” as an uncomfortable and time-consuming activity that you dread. Yes, job-hunting requires a lot of time – it can be a job in and of itself. And starting a brand-new job, perhaps in a new country, takes a lot of energy. It’s much easier, and less exhausting, just to stay put.
  12. You aren’t really that unhappy in your current job. Sure, there’s stuff you dislike about your job. And yeah, you complain about it sometimes. But it’s really not all that bad…

What’s missing from this list? What reasons have kept you in a job that wasn’t the best fit for you? What compelled you to leave? Share your comment below, or drop me a line at shana (at) developmentcrossroads (dot) com.

Photo by beatplusmelody

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