It’s all right, honey. Let her go. Let her go. You know, Miss Ruth was a lady. And a lady always knows when to leave.
This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies, Fried Green Tomatoes. Sipsey utters these lines at the moment the saintly kind-hearted Ruth dies, leaving Idgie alone again. It usually makes me bawl.
But it has also made me wonder, for years, how to know when to leave. How do I not possess Ruth’s grace and wisdom? The truth is, it’s a tough call to make, especially if one of your virtues/flaws is to focus on the good instead of the bad, despite greater quantity or proportion of the latter. The truth is also that I usually stay too long.
I have already shared the story of when I knew my bad marriage wasn’t going to get better (12/14/11 post). The months that followed were a terrifying gift of staying in a dangerous, destructive relationship while quietly planning my escape. It was excruciating not being fully able to speak the truth or leave, but the blessing was getting almost daily validation of why I had to get out. It made my final exit less conflicted.
I feel like that now, but unlike with my marriage, I don’t have a specific deadline to rely on. Towards the end of my marriage, I had graduate school in another state to plan for and provide an escape. This time, with my job, it’s not so concrete.
But there are lots of parallels between the two. How is my current bad job situation like my previous bad marriage situation?
- I got what I said I wanted — but I wasn’t thinking carefully through the long term requirements or commitment.
- I didn’t want to tell myself, or anyone else, the truth about my feelings.
- Once I finally started talking, however, I got understanding and empathy from others.
- All it takes is one really bad day to make me want to leave — my loyalty and overall satisfaction are that fragile.
- All it takes is one decent day to make me think it’s not so bad or it’s finally getting better … until the awfulness starts again and I realize the good day was just a respite.
- There’s very little joy. Good days are about the absence of significant conflict or drama, and satisfaction from having completed a certain number of tasks.
- I give more than the other. The other can’t, or isn’t ready or able, to change or give more.
I have been aware of these ironic parallels for some time, but recently I have had two additional realizations (which are also like what happened in my marriage). One — those I loved are either changing or I am seeing them more clearly. Two — I am changing too, and I don’t like what I am becoming.
My first inkling of changes or shattered illusions began when my colleagues didn’t say anything about my nose piercing. Then my Beloved Boss didn’t say anything. Then she came down hard on me, and later expressed feeling awkward about bringing it up — a management 101 skill in my book. Then she suddenly offered me the one thing I always wanted, when I was already halfway out the door. Then she got on one of my colleagues (my soon-to-be New Boss) about something I was working on instead of asking me about it, which was a new experience for me with her.
Meanwhile, my soon-to-be New Boss scheduled a meeting with me which I discovered (in the meeting) was about clearing the air about a few things before she became my boss (as if we could be completely honest and ignore the impending power shift). I was completely unaware of her concerns, one of which was thinking I needed something from her when my Beloved Boss was getting on her about the aforementioned project I was working on. (I still don’t entirely get that one.)
Another of her concerns was that something I told Toxic Employee got back to her (why did I trust Toxic Employee with that?). I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have told Toxic Employee what I did, because I still believe soon-to-be New Boss made a bad decision and set me (or whoever would come after her) up for failure by not being honest with Toxic Employee about her poor performance. I didn’t tell Toxic Employee the truth, even though I wanted to very badly, but I did imply her previous bosses hadn’t been entirely honest with her. I was trying to give her a bigger picture that painted me as less the lone bad guy out to get her, and more the person trying to deal with a tough situation and do the right thing. I was trying to show fairness and empathy with her shock and indignation, since she had been led to believe she had been a stellar employee for ten years until I came around. The illusion she had been sold was hurting both of us — and the entire department — and I was trying yet another way to give perspective and make things better. I guess it didn’t work, and she told soon-to-be New Boss what I’d said, with her own spin.
I received a message almost two years ago that “leadership is more than what most of the leaders around you, even the good ones, are doing.” I couldn’t fathom this at the time because I adored Beloved Boss and soon-to-be New Boss (one of my mentors), but now I get it. The two people I have most loved, trusted, and respected at work are not entirely the great leaders I thought they were.
I suddenly see The Matrix before me. Beloved Boss contributes to The Problem. She hasn’t always been direct with me about what she has needed from me, or in asking me to change or do something differently. She didn’t go to bat for me when it mattered until it was too late. She said yes to being given more and more responsibility for projects and functions outside her purview — with no title change or extra compensation, and to an extent that will hurt her other areas. She allows her competence and skill to be exploited to make up for others’ (mostly men’s) incompetence and lack of planning. She exploits soon-to-be New Boss’s competence and responsiveness instead of holding her colleagues accountable. She sometimes says yes when she should say no — or sometimes she says nothing, which is the same as yes.
Soon-to-be New Boss also contributes to The Problem. She allowed gross neglect and incompetence to go on for years in the area I inherited because she never had reason for concern (and I guess never had reason to even check). She also allows her competence and skill to be exploited to make up for others’ under-functioning. She enables her reports’ incompetence and irresponsibility by taking on their decisions for them and keeping their failures from showing (which keeps her from looking bad, but does not lead to growth or efficiency). She doesn’t understand why our sister organizations say they don’t want to be like us. She also says yes sometimes, when she should say no.
Both of these women have been in the organization for about 25 years. They are outstanding people — and part of The Solution — but I now see they have not been immune to their environment. They have grown up in a dysfunctional culture and have a tolerance for things they wouldn’t otherwise. They don’t know any different. Both allow their priorities to be manipulated by the latest regulatory freakout or demand from a superior without questioning or taking a stand (it seems). Both appear to make pleasing their bosses top priority always, despite what suffers as a result. Both allow themselves to be handed an impossible amount of work, which keeps them in a perpetual state of overwhelm, attending primarily to ugliness and urgent problems instead of mindfully building and nuturing people and programs. Reaction over prevention isn’t their personal preference, but it is the reality of how they operate.
And both have told me my standards are (too) high. My standards are not too high, I believe they are reasonable and good. I don’t think keeping employee files locked up, doing decent performance evaluations, keeping accurate records, answering emails within a couple days, confronting problems head on and keeping one’s word are unreasonable standards, they are part of The Solution. Perhaps I am like the frog put into boiling water — I jump right out when I sense right away it’s too hot and dangerous. They are like the frogs put in water that has slowly been heated (over 25 years), and now they are (un)happily boiling to death.
Illusions are deadly — deciding someone or something is bad keeps us from seeing goodness, and deciding someone or something is good keeps us from seeing faults and failings. Neither is fair or accurate. Seeing through illusions can be painful and costly; now that I am seeing the Matrix, I feel more vulnerable and alone, without allies. I see again my own failing to be entirely balanced in my assessment of people, tending instead to either blindly trust or entirely write off — like I did with my ex-husband (first the former tendency, then the latter). It’s almost amusing how I fall prey to the same dichotomous either-or thinking I often rail against.
And hope can be dangerous. Hope enables human beings to survive horrible circumstances and overcome tremendous odds. But it can also keep us stuck in an illusion. Holding on to the flickering possibility of change or good can keep us trapped in something mostly bad. This is tempting, since nothing is ever all good or all bad. Holding on can lead to genius or breakthrough or triumph, but it can also lead to disaster and ruin and tragic waste.
Perhaps my doubts about knowing when to leave are really about my fear of being wrong. I can stay and see things stay bad or get worse, and then I will be wrong about staying. Or I can leave and see things improve, and then I will be wrong about leaving. I just can’t know what will happen.
What I do know is I should not make choices counting on certain outcomes. Besides, me making the choice and taking action changes the outcome — my decision shapes the future. What I also know is that I do not like how I am changing, and what I have become. I’ve noticed I’m not really a frog jumping out of the boiling water — I’m trying to swim in it, and my delicate skin is burning.
The fact that I would consider lying to get a coveted job title is not a good sign. The fact I would violate confidence and tell Toxic Employee that soon-to-be New Boss wasn’t honest with her is not a good sign. The chronic bags under my eyes that defy all beauty remedies are not a good sign. My exhaustion even after only working eight hours is not a good sign. It’s not a good sign that I have actually uttered the words “I hate my job” more than once. The other things I hear coming out of my mouth to one of my new employees is not a good sign. The subtle negativity, the undertone of anger, the ultra-political sensitivities and cautious maneuvering — these are not good signs.
In two months, New Employee has been showered with the appreciation, curious inquiries, and positive responses I have yet to receive in 18 months in my new role. I recently read over the many wonderful comments I used to get all the time when I was doing what I love and am truly gifted in doing. I remembered what it was like, and saw even more clearly when I compared myself to New Employee, that my unhappiness and lack of fit isn’t just hurting me — it’s hurting my effectiveness, and my ability to create positive change.
If everything we do is truly infused with the consciousness with which we do it, then me staying and forcing myself to make potentially positive changes in the organization is likely being cancelled out by my attitude and how I go about things. Maybe I have taken von Goethe’s advice — “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being” — too much to heart. Maybe I really am going too much against the grain, pushing too hard, or expecting too much.
In this way I still wonder, is it me, or the organization? Can I still do good? Is there sufficient hope? I was curious to find some rational data — some objective evidence to provide some clarity or insight. So I looked up “dysfunction” in the dictionary to see if my organization qualified. The dictionary said “malfunctioning”, so I looked up “functional.” The second definition was “having or serving a utilitarian purpose; capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed.” This seemed like a good definition, but it struck me that folks in my organization would disagree about the proper definitions of “utilitarian”, “capable” and especially “purpose.” Personally, I see multiple examples every day of how the organization is not serving its purpose, and lack of clarity around what (whose!) purpose it was/is really designed for.
Maybe the key word is “capable”? Maybe my standards are too high and my expectations unrealistic in this environment. And maybe I just don’t agree that the status quo is the best we can do. Maybe I can still see that things don’t have to be the way they are — that there is A Solution (probably more than one). Maybe I believe we can actually change things — that A Solution is doable.
And maybe my beliefs are moot. Just like I believed my now ex-husband was capable of change, he just wasn’t willing or able. And I got to a point where I realized I wasn’t willing or able to function inside that reality anymore — regardless of how that reality might be viewed or labeled by others, and regardless of how hard I tried. And while that point is coming again, it doesn’t feel like it’s fully arrived.
So when should I leave? Perhaps like Ruth, I will know when it’s time.
In lak ech,