Is your boss wasting your potential?
January 22, 2024

Is your boss wasting your potential?

by Brian de Haaff

“I have not done anything meaningful in a year.”

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a candidate applying for an open role at Aha! — someone who currently works at a large software company. And I got the sense this person's boss was wasting their potential. Every project had been canceled midway due to a revolving door of leadership. After ramping up on some new directive from the last VP, things would come to a standstill and then be abandoned by the next hire that came through.

There is nothing worse than feeling useless — we spend too much of our life on our professional work to waste it doing nothing.

I believe that most people want to do their best. We all want to create something of value or help others be exceptional. There will be times when we feel like progress is slow or we are not approaching our full potential. A brief fallow period can actually be fruitful. Maybe there is space to take a class, volunteer at a nonprofit, or just recharge. As long as you are growing, you can feel good.

But what about when you want to achieve, but cannot due to a lousy boss or broken team? Every day feels dark and exhausting — like being stuck waist-deep in a mud pit. It is worse than the Sunday scaries. Even if you heave your way out of the muck on Monday, there is likely residual sludge weighing you down through the week.

Deriving a sense of worth from what you achieve is part of being human — our happiness is greatly impacted by our productivity.

It can be frustrating when the effort you are expending is not aligned with the goodness you generate or the praise that is mirrored back at you. Whether you are at an early-stage startup or one product manager among many in a large enterprise, there should always be meaningful work to do that has the potential to positively impact others and yourself.

Building something meaningful is an effort. And there are always good ideas to pursue. The malaise comes when there is no work — or just the Sisyphean task of moving rocks uphill and downhill for no good reason. Having no useful tasks is its own unique kind of soul-penetrating punishment.

The person I spoke with felt demoralized and asked what I would do in their situation. After pondering for a few days, here is the essence of what I shared with them:

Speak up

Make your aspirations known. Tell your boss (or your boss's boss, if necessary) that you have the capacity to take on more challenging work. Volunteer to work on additional projects that are important to the business. This is not a one-time thing — keep reminding folks that you want to contribute in a meaningful way.

Reframe success

Create a new framework for personal achievement. It should be based on a deep consideration of where you can actually add value to the business. There might not be defined goals from others, but that does not mean you cannot make your own. Think beyond your job description or the areas where you feel shut out. What kinds of requests enable you to flex your skills or align with your values?

Find your people

Seek out a like-minded network. Talk with folks in your organization. There are others around you who want to do good work and make an impact. There are undoubtedly other groups that would benefit from your efforts and vice versa. Look for the folks like you — the people who want to do more.

Stay ready

Take initiative where you can. You want to keep using your skills and finding ways to deliver value. Find opportunities to do so, even if the scale seems small. See those achievements as fuel for motivation. Pursue continuing education, training, or professional certifications that your company supports or recommends.

Practice patience

Remember that growth is a continual process. This moment of being unfairly stuck will pass. See your energy and long-term view as beacons in the darkness. Be present and take note of the incremental progress you make towards growth today. And keep looking for ways to contribute in broader ways.

Change your mindset, and you can change your situation. That useless feeling is only as powerful as you let it be.

Something will give eventually. I know from personal experience how painful it can be to want to do more when others are content with doing less. Either the circumstances will evolve towards your advantage or you will find another outlet for your efforts.

Whatever happens, keep aspiring to achieve. Seek out real challenges and support. You have a lot to contribute. And there are great leaders and businesses who need you to do so.

Do more than you thought possible — Aha! is hiring now.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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