July 4

Why am I struggling at work?


You’re not sure what’s happening.

You used to be a high performer. At school, you weren’t necessarily the top of the class, but you were able to hand in the assignments, and score a decent second-class uppers.

In your previous internships, you were able to turn in reasonable work. At least it was work that didn’t get you scolded, or have colleagues badmouthing you behind your back.

This sucks.

And yes, we know you’ve tried. You’re close to giving up. You’ve tried working harder. Being more conscientious. Asking people for help.

But nothing seems to be working.

Just what exactly is happening?

A story for context

If you’re here looking for guru advice, you’re not going to find it.

I won’t even pretend that I’m a guru.

But I’ve struggled. In my first full-time job, I struggled so badly that I was issued a Performance Improvement Plan, or better known as a get-better or get-sacked plan.

I was so poor at socialising that towards the last 6 months of my 2 year contract, I would say less than 18 words each day I went into the office.

Hello. Good morning.

Have you eaten, (the basic modicum of respect in Singapore)


Colleagues stopped inviting me for meals.

There was an awkward tension in the air each time I appeared at meetings.

But that experience taught me 3 things we neglect to see in our job struggles.

We often neglect these things in our struggles at work.
We often neglect these things in our struggles at work.

Not just a career fit, but a role fit

When I was first rejected by Ivy Tse, the CEO of Halogen Foundation, a youth organisation training youths to become leaders in Singapore, I was surprised by what she told me.

It would have been easy for us to take you on, even though you may not have been a 100% role fit.

But we are dealing with people’s livelihoods here.

You might think that you’ve gotten the right career. Let’s say you’ve always wanted a career in social work.

You’re finally a social worker.

But the role is not the same as the career. The career tends to be the domain you’re interested in. You may have found the social work module you studied in university to be extremely interesting, and thought that the career in social work may have worked well.

The role as a social worker though, may involve things that you don’t quite expect.


  1. Clearing paperwork
  2. Working with involuntary clients who are there because the court ordered them to be there, which means that they are not too keen to implement your advice

So you might be in the right career, but a wrong role.

The solution lies in your strength

The solution isn’t to just change the career, but to figure out where your strengths lie.

There won’t be a hundred percent fit between your skills, and the role but there can be a better fit.

Just 1 person can kill your career happiness

We all know that one person who’s made life at the job hard. You might go to bed, finding it tough to sleep because he’s on your mind. When you’re at work, you find it difficult to speak normally with him in the room.

You might have even spoken to a boss about his actions.

We all know what that person can do to how much we enjoy our work.

When I spoke to my therapist about this difficult person at work, his suggestion was to try and tell him just how he had hurt me.

I did, but it didn’t seem to make me less awkward around him.

Sure, I was young and perhaps immature at 25. Learning how to deal professionally with colleagues I didn’t like was something I had to grow in.

But if you’re struggling with a difficult colleague today at work, the research shows 2 things.

Firstly, that you put distance between yourself and him. If you’re working together on a project, make sure that your meetings always have someone else (that ideally supports you), so that you don’t get unwittingly cut by him.

Secondly, make alliances.

I know, I know. You might think,

John, this isn’t war.

Surely you’re joking!

I’m not.

You might feel like you’re in an ever-exploding workplace
You might feel like you’re in an ever-exploding workplace

Dr Grace Teo-Dixon, a lecturer from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said this when I asked her about how to deal with workplace politics.

Theory again, tells you that distance makes a difference.

There is the principle of proximity . If you don’t want to be influenced by these toxic people, stay as physically far away from them.

It can be as easy as getting a desk that’s further away.

If it’s your boss, then either have somebody who can handle it in front of you, so you don’t get bombarded with all the time. Or instead of face to face, use email or text messages to create that distance.

But you may tell me,

John, I really don’t want to play politics.

Just hear Grace out.

First and foremost, politics is inevitable. Because what is politics? Politics is, in essence, people having relationships with each other, and trying to influence each other to act in ways which you desire or for desired outcomes.

Don’t think of politics as something evil or bad or negative. Think about it neutrally. Like money. Money is neutral. It is the love of money that leads to greed and other vices.

Politics is closely tied to interest. Everybody has self-interest whether they admit it or not. You need to learn to recognise these interests.

If you don’t want to “play politics” then know enough to get out of the way.

I teach my students to begin by observing who hangs out with whom. And then you remember, A hangs out with B, then B plus C and D go out for lunch very often.

They do this in organisations too, in case you think that organisations are not deliberate about networks. They map networks to figure out who to place in certain positions or teams. We call this organisational network analysis 1.

One of the first actions you can do is to draw out an organisational network map. Answer these:

  1. Who seems cozy with whom?
  2. Who doesn’t seem to get along together?
  3. How do you relate to all these colleagues?

When you begin to figure out the alliances between people, you can then begin to see the alliances you can form.

The cultural fit

As I look back at my workplaces, I saw that something I couldn’t control was how much of a cultural fit I would be.

Culture comes down to 3 things.

  1. Values
    1. Do your personal values match the colleagues’ (and the organisational) values?
      1. For example in one of my previous companies, my value of integrity did not match my colleagues’ tendency for ‘fun’. They would use work hours to go for karaoke, long lunches, and spas. I know it sounds ridiculous, but when we didn’t have an onsite supervisor, work became play.
  2. Ambition
    1. Some companies just want to keep things running. They are okay with being average in the industry, rather than trying to be the best.
    2. If you’re in a high-performance culture, where the company strives to be the best of the industry, your laidback style might not gel well.
  3. Workstyle
    1. Amongst our team now, I’ve found that the scrappy, ‘get things done’ emphasis has tended to introduce tension within some members of the team.

When you start figuring these 3 elements out, you will know whether you’re a good fit.

Sometimes, a job is just a job

Often, we bring so much into a job.

We want a job to provide:

  1. Income security
  2. Aspirational security
    1. We want to know we can fulfil our dreams at work.
  3. Growth
    1. We want to feel like we are growing at the company.

But sometimes, that may not work. And it’s during these times that we have to just realise that struggling is okay. That it’s part of what we signed up for.

That we don’t walk away when things get hard.

But that

  1. We talk to trusted mentors.
  2. We speak to supervisors at work about just what doesn’t seem to work, and their advice on what might work better.
  3. We reflect on our journey, and what we can do better.

What else has worked for you?

Let me know in the comments below.

  1. Cross, R., Gardner, H.K. & Crocker, A. (Mar-Apr 2021). For an agile transformation, choose the right people. Harvard Business Review.



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