Are You Underappreciated at Work or Are You Just Being Negative?
December 06, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career
I used to dread Sunday nights.
No matter what I did to tire myself out before bed—read books, watch mindless television, cook elaborate dinners and then clean up after—I’d lie there, alternating between scrolling through Instagram and reading the New York Times on my phone, waiting to feel tired enough to fall asleep. I never could, though. The looming work week and the petty politics I would encounter at the office were too anxiety-inducing. I’d try setting my phone down, only to ruminate over how my boss valued all the wrong things, least of all me. Finally, my alarm would go off, and I’d force myself to work out despite my exhaustion, counting on endorphins to at least make the day tolerable.
Feeling underappreciated at work can feel especially horrible because it’s isolating. You wonder why you’re the only one who can see the impact your brilliance and remarkable work ethic have had on your company. You have fantasies about staging a coup against your boss and responding to her emails with equally mean ones. You ask yourself if you really did do something wrong or if your manager is just in a bad mood.
Over time (and through some trial and error), I’ve learned that these feelings can be productively channeled into a better outcome—but the first step is figuring out what these feelings are really telling you, because it’s probably something deeper than that you just hate your boss (or that she just hates you). The next step is figuring out what you want to do about it.
Why We Feel Underappreciated at Work
“The only thing in our lives that we can control is ourselves and our reaction to situations,” says Alexis Kahlow, founder of OpenDeltas, which offers career coaching based on mindfulness practices. The first step to overcoming feelings of resentment and isolation at work, she argues, is asking why we feel the way we do.
Some of it is simply human nature. Negativity bias, for instance, is a phenomenon where we remember negative events more strongly than positive ones. (So if someone ever tells you to “stop being negative,” you can tell them we’re all negative.) At work, the problem becomes that even if we do receive praise and compliments, these situations don’t resonate as much as that one mean Slack message your manager sent you.
Negativity biases and office cultures where people spend more time complaining than working can cloud our thinking surrounding our own work needs and desires. “I see a lot of women who haven’t taken the time to realize, I don’t like this job at all and I need to find a new career,” said Kahlow, who started her company after having this very realization as a high-powered, well-paid executive at a Fortune 50 company. “They just stay in the same job because it’s safe and they don’t realize, I’ve actually outgrown this position and I need to move into a different one—and that’s very scary because feeling stuck (not underappreciated or isolated) is the actual problem.”
When Feeling Underappreciated is Part of a Bigger Problem
April A. was thrilled to start a new job at a tech company in her early thirties, having recently earned her MBA. Her boss was a man who read management books all day. The company was well-funded and growing quickly.
However, a few weeks into the job, she went to work one day only to find her entire team wasn’t there. She asked a manager of another team where everyone was, but he didn’t know. She sat down at her desk to do work, and then her boss’s boss came in and said, “You left early? How was it?”
“What are you talking about?” April said. “Where is everyone?”
“The management seminar?” the boss’s boss said, like April should have known. She packed up her stuff, went to the seminar, and later learned that she hadn’t been invited because of a petty feud between the event’s organizer and her boss.
Things didn’t improve over the next two years. When she received publicity for one of the company’s initiatives in a major magazine, no one acknowledged it. She was passed over for speaking opportunities while men with little talent for it were booked on panels. And she never received a promotion, even though the company seemed to promote other staffers constantly. She was spending a lot of money on therapy, trying to figure out how to make the circumstances at work less painful.
She then realized she had to leave the job. Once she did, she saw that even though the organization she worked for didn’t acknowledge her achievements, it paid off in other ways. The magazine spread landed her a consulting gig. She was recruited by a more established company that wasn’t run by twenty-somethings.
“I still feel like I have scars from that,” says April, who’s now at a job with a boss she likes. “It showed me that I can’t have loyalty to an organization.”
Jobs should be challenging, not hard. “Is it something that fuels you more than drains you?” says Kahlow. “If you can’t make an impact, then you need to accept this environment is not for you.”
When Feeling Unhappy is Temporary
Kathryn K., who works in the fashion industry, went through a phase at her job where she felt invisible. She was taking on big projects, and instead of delegating tasks to the small team she managed, she did everything on her own. Her boss never acknowledged her work. She identified with an article she read online about Asian-American women like herself being underappreciated workhorses, and she decided to speak up. She went into her boss’s office and said, “Just so you know, I did all of this work myself.” Kathryn’s boss later praised her once at a staff meeting—when Kathryn was out working on another project.
Kathryn didn’t necessarily want to leave her job, though. She liked what she did and knew that the kind of job she currently had would be extremely difficult to find elsewhere. So she paused and asked herself why she even wanted praise. “What do you want from acknowledgement? Do you want more money, do you want a promotion?” she says. “If you’re not getting more money and you’re not getting a promotion, someone praising you doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
Then, she took stock of her work load. Why was she doing all this work herself if it wasn’t impacting her standing at the company? She got better at delegating to her team. And she took a stand against impulsive complaining—for her own mental state, but also to set an example for those she managed. “There’s a difference between whining and actually addressing a problem, and I don’t think people understand the difference. Whining is complaining about something that bothers you, but if you just don’t like something, that doesn’t mean that it’s a problem.”
Tara F., a doctor, had to undertake a huge amount of management and administrative work when she started practicing medicine at her current job. She was tasked with building out a clinic for her specialty and realized she’d have to set up the infrastructure to allow the office to run smoothly both for the staff and her patients while she went on maternity leave. When she returned from maternity leave, no one acknowledged how helpful everything she had done had been before she had her baby.
“I was annoyed and shrugged it off and moved on. Because frankly, I was also doing it to make my life easier, and it’s not like I would have gotten anything out of it, right? No one would have said, you did an amazing job, here’s more money,” says Tara. She also didn’t want to seem like a frazzled working mom who couldn’t handle being in a senior position. “The narrative of the mom is that she wants to be at home with her baby, so I just suck it up.”
But she takes time to write down the extra projects she completes and the skills they’ve allowed her to build so that she can leverage that experience to land a better, higher-paying job in the future.
How I Moved On
After years of sleepless Sundays, I left that traditional office job to work for myself as a writer and consultant. I realized that success doesn’t have to look like a stereotype. I don’t have to be at the head of a table in a boardroom to be successful, because success isn’t about optics, it’s about feeling personally satisfied with one’s work. After I made that very necessary change to my job and outlook, I slept better—and felt happier than ever.
Photos by Matthew Priestley.