I was a child of the 70’s, and because of that I came of age right when the Television show for the Incredible Hulk hit prime time. I doubt there was a five year old in the world who didn’t become an immediate fan of a show with a basic premise being about a guy who gets mad and then turns into a big green monster who gets to smash everything he doesn’t like. Back in the day most television series would structure the story to include a ‘reset button’ ending to set up the next episode like the last episode never happened. The end of nearly every episode of the Incredible Hulk included David (Bruce sounded ‘too gay-ish’ for early 70’s television executive sensibilities) Banner walking away to a solo piano track by the name of “the Lonely Man”. That track, that solo piano piece, is the thing that always comes to my mind when I consider walking away from something, no matter if it’s work or life.
Q: Why do you walk away from something?
A: Fear and Futility/Frustration.
Fear stems from the “they might’s…”. It’s not what is actually happening but it what could be. In some cases it could mean “they might cancel the project that’s so important to me”. That type of thing happens often but it’s not the biggest of the “they mights”. The biggest is always “They might fire me” and all of the anxiety producing fall out from losing a job. Most of this stems from organizations that fail to telegraph properly or of having a siloed communication culture. The more obvious the signs of the path, the less the fear is going to be.
For many reasons, organizations have a tendency to not want to share the decision making process. Most likely it’s because the individuals who make up the organizational decision makers are always trying to mitigate risk and drive productivity. The boss wants to keep the office environment pleasant, the sales team motivated, and retain the best people even if they know there is a cut or a reorg coming that many / all may not be happy with. So secrecy is the word of the day. This culture probably developed because of the crazy litigious nature of our society sprinkled with a dash of competitive caution.
I personally don’t prescribe to this as I have been a part of situations where really bad things are going to happen at the organization but everyone knew about them months and months in advance. Layoffs, plant closings and large transitions are all much more congenial experiences when everyone gets to go through the emotional process leading to acceptance before the actual event. The argument can be that sometimes the big decisions aren’t made until the last second, but if the organization is less reactive, more deliberate, and as open as possible, everyone can be better prepared with the potential for a bad decision.
More nuanced is the two headed coin of Futility & Frustration. All fruitless endeavors eventually go away. That being said some take literal generations to disappear. These include jobs industries which are anchored by legislation or culture. There are many grant programs that have been funded by congress which create thousands of jobs across the country with the goal of promoting change in the fabric of society. If the population being served by these programs has some sort of insurmountable barrier, no real change can happen. I have seen this more in the world of government, where jobs are legislated into existence, than I have in the private sector. A good example is former offenders, which if you are engaged with the workforce, is a huge area of concern. Long term trends in incarceration policy are at odds with cultural norms in certain populations. I.e. When you’re young, getting high on the weekends and dealing on the side for a few extra dollars may be totally cool with your buds and your baby momma (in some socio-economic levels marriage is held in about as high esteem as adhering to the controlled substance laws), but eventually you’re going to get caught and go to jail. If you get out and realize that maybe that dealing thing wasn’t such a good idea, going legit may seem like a viable option. This is when the former offender support team would come in to assist. The problem is that you could have hundreds of case managers and dozens of different programs in a state all aimed at helping former offenders get gainful employment (and lower commensurate recidivism), but not a single bit of that effort will change the supply of jobs available to that population. The fact is that some jobs, and whole industries are just closed off to large swaths of the population that has a record. Imagine if you are a case manager or a specialist whose job it is, to train, prepare, and find jobs for people who are exiting the penal system. On one hand you have a massive and unrelenting inflow into your caseload. You have metrics your being measured by which usually are around job placements. Placements are impossible, because the bank, the hospital, the school system, larger corporations and many many other employers simple say no to anyone with a felony. Cue the sad trombone sound. Even the freshest faced graduate from a social services program motivated with a strong desire to ‘make a difference’ in their community will eventually develop a deep seated frustration with their job.
A good example of the private sector application of this situation would be a dead end product line or service area that’s getting no resources beyond minimal maintenance from the HQ. The company may want to keep the product or office alive because it is part of a larger complete package of offerings, but it isn’t going anywhere. Even in the instances where management just wants you to keep the lights on, sometimes even people with minimal aspirations may get frustrated at doing the same thing or always being told ‘no’ to some new process or innovation they want to try that would enhance their situation.
So no matter if there is fear of some hugely negative event, or when frustration grows to when people get to the “enough is enough” point, Sometimes we really start to consider just walking away.
But what if you stick it out?
Bob Dole and Hillary Clinton are big political examples of those who stuck it out. Both were high level politicians who dedicated their entire career to achieve the ends of the Presidency. What they both had in common is that they were completely committed through the decades to the point where the the time was right. They waited their turn and then, in the end, even after tremendous support from their constituency, lost the prize. A prize that there is virtually no way to get a second shot at. Yes, I know only a select few people in the world get a chance at running for the presidency, but it’s still a good analogy because sticking it out is an option at every level of the organization. The bottom line is that you could stick it out and still loose in the end.
The Perfect World
The perfect world, one that does exist in a few professional circles is the ability to move with ease. I can only think of two areas where this works. The first is if you are completely financially independent. Financial Independence is seen more in the tech sector than anywhere else. If you happen to have shares in a technical organization and got in early enough where those shares appreciated substantially then you can walk. You don’t have to have the income, the health care, and all of the other benefits of working for an organization. You can afford to do that all yourself. Even rarer still is if you have a piece of the profit on a product line that just explodes. You see this with video games where the creative directors have more than enough money after their game becomes a huge hit. It’s still technical though and most organizations are structured around keeping most of the rank-and-file from enjoying a significant share of the wealth creation of a highly successful product.
The other option is if you just happen to have a skill that is hugely in demand. In our area this mostly equates to Medical Careers. Whether you’re an MD, nurse practitioner or some other kind of specialist you can walk out of one practice and walk directly into another one. The same can be said for many tech careers. It’s not just the highly skilled and credentialed positions, another example lower on the technically proficient ladder is long haul truck drivers, at least for now. The problem with this perfect world is it only works when the skill or credential supply is severely limited. If you are in a lower demand role like an HR professional and you get frustrated with your organization, when you leave you will be competing with many many other people with the same skill set and it will take you time to land another job. Being an HR professional you would think you would be able to do that very quickly because of your extremely high level of understanding on how to get a job, but in my experience that’s not the case. You simply cannot escape the reality of supply and demand in the job market.
The Risk Calculation
There is a risk to staying (opportunity cost), and a risk to leaving. This is really the Crux of this article. I’ve already touched on the risk of sticking around. That risk ultimately boils down to somebody making a decision that you are not needed anymore or things simply don’t get better and you stay frustrated. The benefit of course is that you get “the benefits” of keeping a job. That check still keeps getting cut and you still have that Healthcare. Plus you also know the lay of the land. There’s generally not too much surprising other than the usual surprises.
It’s the other side that’s more interesting, making the choice to actually walk away. Walking away is both hard and easy to do. The hard part is figuring out when. The easy part actually is just doing it. The thing to keep in mind is the transaction cost. The transaction cost can be substantial because generally speaking you’re moving into an entirely new environment even if it’s the same type of job. There is new politics involved, there is a new lay of the land to understand and all organisations have a somewhat unique culture. the risk is that you don’t know any of these things or what their pain points really are going to be. you may be miserable in the job you decide to stay at but at least you know what’s going on around you assuming you work in an organization where you are not 100% in the dark. You never want to focus on all the potential positives of walking away from all of the pain points in your old organization and ignore the potential negatives at the new one.
Should you do it, and if so, when?
There is one obvious answer to this question. That’s when you know the end is coming for your organization or department or your specific position. Then it doesn’t really matter what they promise or how much that extra little bonus for sticking around till the end is going to be. You just need to go as soon as you have landed something better. The only trick to this is understanding when there’s a disconnect between what you know to be reality and what they are telling you. If it’s patently obvious that you’re going to lose your job but the boss and/or the company line is that “nothing bad is going to happen” and “everything is business as usual”, you still really need to look deep and figure out how you can get out of that comfort zone of sticking around to launch yourself into something new. It is my experience that younger individuals who are early in the career have a tendency to idealistically believe in what the organization is telling them. After you’ve been through a few organizational shifts where the company was acting in a way that was in the company’s best interest, where they are saying what they are saying to retain their best people until the very end and then dropping the bomb, you’ll learn to spot the signs and plan your exit. Hint: If you ever catch yourself saying something like “if this XYZ thing happens then we should all be okay”, then you know it’s time to move. You never want to be in an organization where you’re constantly on the precipice of losing your job unless you just love the thrill or are independently wealthy.
A twist on this is when the organization has a culture of continually wanting “new blood” and new ideas via new people. These types of organizations always have some long-timers but also have big churn. You are never safe in these organizations even if you are doing a great job. Even if your specific position is not immediately at risk, if this is the culture of your organization it’s definitely a good idea to continually keep your eye out for that next better thing and jump as soon as you grab one.
The second answer really has more to do with how much organizational pain you can take. There are a lot of nuances to this and they are all related to the individual’s personality. If you are frustrated in your professional life and it significantly bleeds over into your personal life, is that a good sign that it’s absolutely time to move on? What if that is just your MO of existence? Some people simply aren’t happy by their genetics and environment. If you’re miserable at your job and you’re going to be miserable at the next job fairly quickly then it may be better to not walk away. Again there is some seasoning that happens here. You have to know yourself and that takes a chunk of your life. Dave Ramsey has the best quote ever on this which is “you know you are ready to make a real change when you are sick and tired of being sick and tired”. Unfortunately there’s no science behind that individual breaking point. It’s different from person to person and situation to situation. Some don’t ever reach it at all.
The ultimate challenge is that this is a deeply nuanced decision that is highly intertwined with the unique personality of the person who is considering if they should walk away. There are obvious times you should do it, and there are times when it’s not so obvious. No matter where you are with your frustration or happiness within the organization there are some best practices to always keep in mind. You should always understand what your job market looks like if your position were to end unexpectedly or you just get frustrated and want to walk away. You should always be ready to make that move with savings at home if the decision to walk away is made for you or keep an updated LinkedIn and resume available at all times should you feel the desire to make it yourself. Keep this one thing in mind: Practically no organization in the modern world maintains a high level of loyalty to it’s people. Some feel like they do up until the day they have to make “hard choices”. If you are fearful of your position’s stability, or if you are frustrated in what you are doing, you should consider many things when it comes to walking away, but loyalty to the organization should be lower on the priority list in your calculus no matter how much pixie dust they have sprinkled to keep the staff happy.
The last little bit of advice I can give you is that if you ever do decide to walk away, then try to fit in the phrase “Don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when i’m angry” at some point near the end. Then leave the tune “The Lonely Man” playing on a loop as you walk out the door the final time. If the people in the building are of a certain age, they will laugh, and you always want to leave them laughing.
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