What to Do When You're Struggling at Work

How to identify and solve your workplace problems

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It’s a terrible feeling to know that you’re struggling in your job. Maybe you feel in over your head, or you’ve been warned that you need to improve, or you just can’t seem to please your boss no matter what you do. You’re worried about getting fired and not sure how to fix it.

[See 15 Ways Good Bosses Keep Their Best Employees.]

When you’re in this situation, how you handle it is crucial to what the outcome ends up being. Here are five key steps you should take:

1. First, don’t pretend it’s not happening. Many people react to difficulties at work by not doing anything about them, either because they’re worried about drawing attention to the situation or because they hope that the problems will somehow just go away. This is about the worst thing that you can do, because if your boss knows that you’re struggling and you appear not to notice or care, it’ll look even worse for you.

2. Instead of hoping the problem with go away, tackle it head-on. Sit down with your boss and say that you feel you’re not doing as well as you could be doing. Ask for her advice, and then listen with an open mind. Don’t focus on defending yourself; focus only on hearing and understanding what she tells you. If she’s vague, ask her to help you understand by giving you a specific example or two. When she does, remember: The goal here isn’t to defend yourself. You are just trying to understand what her concerns are with your work.

[See 10 Signs Your Boss Just Isn't that Into You.]

3. Thank you your boss for talking with you. Yes, really. It doesn’t matter if you agree with her assessment or not. Thank her for giving you honest feedback. This can be disarmingly effective because managers are used to many employees resisting serious feedback like this and even being adversarial.

4. Next, give yourself some honest feedback. Even if you disagree with your manager’s assessment, you know now how she sees your work. Is there any truth to her perspective? If not, is there an explanation for why a reasonable person could perceive things that way? More importantly, having heard what your manager wants of you, do you realistically think you can meet her expectations? What can you do differently? Sometimes the answer can be as simple as changing a work habit or the way you organize things. Other times, the answer might not be as simple.

5. Now it’s decision time. Perhaps you’ll realize that she’s pointing out things in your work that you can/should change, and you can work on changing them. If this happens, let her know. Otherwise, you’ll realize that she’s pointing out things that you can’t easily change (or don’t particularly want to change). If this is the case, the best thing you can do is to start looking for other work.

The goal throughout all of this is to figure out where you stand and why so that you can make good decisions for yourself, based on candid discussion, not speculation.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.

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