Advice & News

February 5, 2020

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Do Something!


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I am occasionally met with skepticism on previous articles, particularly when discussing bad job and work experiences. Perhaps advice about leaving a bad job isn't realistic in some situations. Perhaps I didn't fully comprehend the difficulties that some face leaving a bad job, particularly if they have no immediate job prospects, they are in a field for which there are few equivalent opportunities available, or circumstances (like health care considerations) make transition difficult. These are significant challenges, indeed.

Deciding whether to leave a bad job or to stay is never easy. Nonetheless, despite the limited options available, leaving may be the best option for the reasons I've stated previously. I wonder, though, whether some individuals find themselves stuck asking "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" without taking meaningful steps to answer this question. They remain in a bad job, feeling there is no way out and no one able to understand their plight or help them.

Many of us have felt stuck in a job, bad or otherwise, and not known what to do. We eventually answer the question, "When is it time to leave?", by leaving when the next opportunity arises, leaving sooner if the job is bad enough to warrant it, or remaining after we've worked to improve our situation. We should never remain stuck in a hopeless question loop, "Should I stay or go?" without eventually answering the question and acting. I offer these suggestions to help break this cycle:

Take a lesson from Admiral Stockdale. In "Good to Great," Jim Collins popularized the Stockdale Paradox based on the life and experiences of Vietnam POW Admiral James Stockdale. The paradox refers to Stockdale's unwavering faith that he would live and eventually leave the POW camp where he was held seven years and the need to face the "brutal facts" of his situation and give up hope that he would be rescued by a certain time. Stockdale notes that prisoners who put their hopes in being rescued by Christmas eventually lost hope and died when their hopes weren't realized in time.

Having unwavering faith means deliberate concentration and taking deliberate action constantly devoted to a single goal -- staying alive in Admiral Stockdale's case.

We must stay focused on our goals to realize a better work, career, and job situation and take deliberate action until these goals are achieved. The bigger challenge, as the Stockdale Paradox notes, is maintaining unwavering faith time and time again when deliverance has not arrived. The brutal fact may be that you are in a bad job situation and one that isn't likely to improve soon. Letting go of the weak hope that your situation will improve soon can liberate you to concentrate on the essential attitudes, decisions, and actions for surviving until you realize a better situation, which you will achieve through your efforts rather than hope alone.

Realize you have choices, then act upon them. In "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Covey contrasts proactive and reactive behaviors and thought processes.

Thinking reactively leads us to believe we have no control over our situation and that we are more often acted upon. We then justify our decisions to do nothing, to think negatively and be non-productive, thereby excusing ourselves from taking responsibility because we feel helpless. While there are situations beyond our control, thinking proactively helps us focus on what we can control and influence.

Being proactive in a bad job situation helps us make choices that either move us toward an improved situation, because we have more control of such matters, or equip us to respond appropriately when we are frustrated about matters we can't control. We can take steps to develop ourselves, enhance our resume, and identify career opportunities that are more rewarding. We can take stock of our current situation, identify possible opportunities for learning and growth, and in the worst moments maintain professionalism, refusing to be pulled in by negativity and the reactive behaviors of others.

Continue to seek advice, then act upon the advice you seek. I've been privileged to coach employees regarding their difficult work situations. While most individuals are responsive and find coaching helpful, I would describe some individuals as more in the reactive camp I describe above. In essence, these coaching conversations go like this:

Coach: "Well, have you tried x?"
Employee: "No, that won't work because . . ."
Coach: "Okay, what about y?"
Employee: "No, that won't work either because . . ."
Coach: "I see. We'll how about z? Surely, that's something you can do."
Employee: "Well, I thought about that, but decided against it, because . . ."
And so on.

I understand fear and paralysis can cause us to feel like we have no viable options, but my response in these situations is to explain how this loop of indecision -- "should I do x or should I do y, I just don't know" -- is not getting them anywhere because they are making excuses and aren't open to considering, much less applying, any option discussed.

Seeking advice among trusted colleagues and professionals, such as HR, executive coaches, or counselors, is a positive strategy during difficult job situations because we shouldn't undertake these journeys alone. Consider whether you've sought advice, only to reject the advice given, perhaps then to find fault with the advisor. You must find the solutions -- good advisors are there to guide you, not to decide for you or provide a "magic bullet" that will take care of your problems without effort on your part. Instead, approach your advisors with possible options you might consider, talk through the pros and cons, and let them walk you through processes for implementing the most viable options. Acknowledge your fears and paralysis and elicit support for overcoming these concerns so you can take positive steps toward changing your circumstances.

Have the difficult conversations you need to have to improve your situation. A common cause for our difficult job situations is difficulty communicating with someone else. This is often the boss, but may be a peer, or even a direct report. Perhaps, then, our indecision about "should I stay or go," boils down to, "should I talk with or avoid the person who is making my life difficult?" Regrettably, the answer is often avoidance and then enduring the negative circumstances that could have improved with the right conversation. Whether to confront negative behavior or negotiate for improved work conditions or opportunities, finding ways to address concerns with that individual is crucial for ending this loop.

I can hear pushback on this with arguments that approaching the difficult person is simply too risky and likely to make matters worse. I have never advised anyone to arbitrarily approach their difficult person without forethought and planning, or in disregard to political or interpersonal dynamics that may make such an approach unfeasible. You should get support from trusted advisors about when, how, and whether to have such conversations. You should analyze what the right conversation needs to be right now. Rather than overwhelming yourself with thinking that the conversation needs to be an exposé on everything that is wrong about the other person, perhaps you simply need to communicate a specific need and how the other person's ability to meet that need might also benefit them. This may then lead to another conversation, gradually building confidence and creating awareness of broader concerns.

Whatever the conversation, however you need to have it, and at whatever level of gravity required, don't dismiss how your prior indecision to approach such conversations, avoiding them altogether, may be a significant factor in your bad job situation and why it continues. You're not to blame for the difficult person, but you have choices in how you'll manage the situation, and confronting it directly -- yet thoughtfully and professionally -- may be essential for improving matters. I've written about processes and skills for having difficult conversations, and a model and book I recommend is "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High."

Do something! It is that simple. No, it's not easy. Yes, as much as doing something may lead to improved circumstances or a better job, it may also mean the tough decision to leave without the security of another job in hand. There are no guarantees. On the other hand, if you have been in the indecision loop, "should I stay or should I go," recognize how your indecision has held you back and how you have much more to offer than your indecision has allowed you to realize. Time to offer it!