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The Hamster Wheel

Work doesn't have to be a mind-numbing experience.

I don’t think it matters what age group you’re in, or what your current employment is:  almost every working adult I know, or have come into contact with, has some experience with or understanding of ‘the hamster wheel’.  Although the expression’s mostly used to describe being in a career rut, I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who feel stuck in other types of monotonous life situations. Running in a mindless way, but getting absolutely nowhere…staying on the wheel instead of jumping off into the box you know you’re in, because running feels like movement.(Whenever I’m in a pet store I have to avert my eyes from caged rodents, fighting an urge to liberate them all; feeling pretty sure that the idea of hamsters being happy on their little wheels is bunk.)

Any kind of work has the potential to become tedious and boring, if it doesn’t meet our needs – which invariably change as we move through life. But, for a growing number of younger people, being able to see ahead to the future, and what those needs might one day be, is a pointless exercise.

According to recent studies in the U.S. and around the globe, more than half of employed millennials say that they plan to leave their current jobs “within two years” ( At some point – unless success comes through total independence — to avoid getting labeled as a permanent flight-risk, some degree of commitment’s going to become necessary.

In my role as consultant and coach for individuals and organizations, I tend to ‘alert’ on recommendations made to the group affectionately (or not) referred to as Hoppers. Right:  as in “job-hoppers”. This past weekend I read an essay written by a well-known corporate headhunter. Rather than fault Hoppers for being commitment-shy or downright flaky (which I expected) the writer praised those who’re in perpetual job-hunting mode (even while employed) for being true to themselves; for being determined to find the correct Culture in which they’d be most likely to thrive.

No way am I going to affirm or refute her assumptions about why so many people in this particular group seem to change jobs – a lot. What I will say is that human (and organizational) psychology tends to reveal that we all want and need to feel productive, in whatever work we choose. Even better if the work is satisfying, in that it meets the needs we’ve identified for ourselves.

But let’s just say that the search for the healthiest Culture is a legit reason to keep changing jobs. What’s next? The headhunter claims that a job-seeker should be able to analyze Culture without actually taking the job first. How? First, she suggests cruising the business to get a sense of the place. This means, getting a read (once you’re already in the building, as in ‘post-interview’) on the building’s layout, amenities, visuals and general “vibe” (her word, not mine). She also suggests talking with people who are employed there. Do they seem happy? Stressed? Friendly, or rude?

At this point in the article I’ll freely admit that my lessons-learned from decades working for large organizations kicked-in. I stopped reading and decided to offer a Post about the idea of choosing a job based on what the Culture seems to be.

Some bullets will be handy:

  • An organization’s Culture is, no question, the single most important driver for the success of the company. But ‘success’ can be subjective and deceptive. You won’t know the details until you get there.
  • Culture is complex and enduring. Even if it’s dysfunctional, people in the company have contributed to it and sustained it.
  • Climate is different from Culture:  the former is the day to day “feel” of the place; the latter is the larger system of operations. Climate can be seen and felt in the Now; culture won’t expose itself until there’s a significant situation (how a company handles a sudden crisis, for example).

Sad to say, there’s really no way to analyze an organization’s culture without actually working in it. Even going to a site like Glassdoor for employee feedback can be misleading. But there are ways to get a ‘read’ on things, once you get an interview. Assuming that your nerves aren’t crazy out of control and you can listen and observe calmly, there’ll be a wealth of verbal and non-verbal information coming from the person or people doing the interviewing, as well as from the structure of the thing. How much time is allowed? Do things feel ‘rushed’? Are you welcomed and made comfortable? Are you allowed to ask questions? (Hopefully, you’re prepared for this).

If you know what your salary needs are, and have done a little research on the company you might be hired by, you’re already ahead of the game. But thinking that you’ll be able to see and feel and measure whether or not the Culture will be a good fit for you, you’ll have to stick around for that. Which doesn’t mean surrendering to the hamster wheel.

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