A subscriber recently asked me during an event, “How do you know when it’s time to quit a job?”
They faced some serious challenges with the behavior of several organizational leaders. This was creating technical impasses that felt unsolvable given the poor interpersonal dynamics and toxic conflict. They were frustrated, exhausted, and simply ready to throw in the towel.
I posed a different question in response, “How do you know when it’s time to get fired?”
Eventually, everyone finds themselves in a professional situation that feels untenable. I’m not referring to feeling restless, a desire to seek more status and compensation, or wanting a change of pace.
There will come a time when you have a job that you love, but something about the working conditions makes it feel acutely unbearable. Here are some common examples:
You are stuck under the thumb of a tyrannical and bullying supervisor.
Your organization is engaged in unethical behavior.
The climate among co-workers is toxic and negative.
When you are facing a situation like the above, there are no easy answers. As I said in Leading Conflict Principle 3, one way or another it’s likely time to Embrace the Suck.
However, if things are truly so bad that you want to quit, another option is to go for broke, move toward fear and wade-in.
If it’s worth quitting over, maybe it’s worth being fired over.
If you haven’t been successful at swatting that bee in your bonnet or removing that stone from your shoe, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’ve tried everything and the situation is hopeless.
However, have you really tried everything, or just all of the easier low-risk things? Maybe there’s plenty more you could do, but those things are much harder and more scary.
If things are really so bad that you are truly considering quitting, why not (metaphorically-speaking) go down swinging?
This is the superpower of underdogs. No expects them to win in first place.
You might fight hard and lose. Good on ya’. You showed some heart and gave it all you had. But maybe, just maybe, you don’t take it on the chin. Maybe this time, the unknown challenger takes down the heavyweight champ.
Assuming you’re willing to fight hard for a cause you believe in and accept the consequences, it could be a win-win scenario for you in the long run.
If you decide to go one more round, here are a few rules of the road:
Keep your efforts laser-focused on helping others and the organization, not on your own ego or personal needs.
Forgo any opportunities to settle scores or shame others.
Be willing to let others, especially superiors, take the credit if things get better.
If you’re going to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, people need to trust that you’re doing this for them and the organization, not for yourself.
You might fail to change anything. However, if you fight valiantly and with strong principles, you can leave with your head held high. You’ll know that you did everything that you could possibly do to make things better. Colleagues remember those people.
No one roots for Goliath. Even if David loses nine times out of ten, he’s still the hero. Goliath needs to win every time to continue to be Goliath.
Worst case scenario? You get fired. So what? You were about to quit anyway, right?
Ok… disclaimer. It can always get worse. Maybe you work for the CERN supercollider and your little crusade disrupts workplace equilibrium so badly that the research team inadvertently opens a black hole sucking all life on the planet into high-density nothingness. Yes, that would be worse. However, getting fired is the most likely “worse”.
Not getting the reference you would have liked? Well, when interviewing a non-stop parade of nearly identical candidates, a real and courageous story about how someone was asked to leave their previous job because they tried to do the right thing is a pretty interesting break in the routine. Your next organization might be looking for someone just like that.
If you find yourself in this (somewhat) unlikely interviewing situation, tell the absolute and unvarnished truth. Don’t be bitter. “Bitter ex-employee” is not a good look in a job interview.
Instead, simply tell the story of how you tried your best to change something that needed to change or right a wrong that needed to be dealt with. Be humble, straightforward, and matter-of-fact. You sacrificed your own comfort to do the right thing.
Some of the most valued people in my own organization came to us with just such as story to share. We happen to be a community that seeks and rewards that type of professional. In practice, that means we will often draw the best and most ethical talent from other organizations. Being on the light side of the Force has its benefits.
Now, please hear me. This is not an invitation to become the harbinger of the apocalypse in your current place of employment. No one values unhinged loose cannons. If you’re convinced that metaphorically burning the place down is the moral solution, you just might be the problem.
Don’t wreck the thing you’re trying help.
Becoming the organization’s professional martyr rarely changes anything either, even if you have been deeply wronged. If the goal is change, then people need to see you lead not bleed.
Now here’s the flip-side.
If things are truly as bad as you say they are, and you dig deep and really decide that it’s all or nothing, change or bust; there’s a distinct possibility that you will be the one that breaks the cycle that couldn’t be broken. You actually might have the rare opportunity to play a role in writing a new chapter in the story of your organization, or least your specific corner of it.
The great secret about transformative change in organizations is that such opportunities appear all the time. Problem is, it’s easier to quit. And that’s what most people do.
Here’s another fact that is nearly a certainty. That problem, that thing that seems so big and intractable, when finally faced with someone with the grit and determination to take it on, eyeball-to-eyeball to the bitter end, will likely prove to be a lot less scary and powerful than you think it is.
All those things you’ve been thinking… Others have been thinking them too. Maybe even people involved in the very problem itself are deeply unsatisfied with the way things are. They just might not know how, or have the courage to speak-up and change things.
Maybe they’ve been waiting for something. Maybe they’ve been waiting for you.
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