I made a terrible mistake the first time I quit a professional job. I was in my 20s and had been working on an MBA at night and decided to return to school full time to finish the second half of the degree. Wanting to leave well, I gave my boss six months’ notice. Big mistake.
Understandably, when interesting new assignments came up, I didn’t get them. When decision-making meetings were scheduled, I wasn’t invited. Over time, I ended up drifting to the margins of the project, working on unimportant and uninteresting tasks. To my knowledge, none of this was retribution; everyone just started to think of me as a short-termer, someone who wouldn’t be a factor in the future, long before my interest in contributing waned. My well-intentioned attempt to depart smoothly ended up serving both me and my employers poorly. I lost out on months of interesting work, and they didn’t get full value from me despite paying me the whole time.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated by what happens when people and organizations go their separate ways. It’s a time when individual character and organizational culture are revealed, released from the constraining compromises of ongoing relationships and highlighted by the intense jumble of emotions of everyone involved. You can learn a lot about yourself, your colleagues and your organization by paying close attention when the time to leave comes.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned.
The initiator sets the tone. Whether you resign, retire, are fired or get laid off, the party initiating the process sets the emotional atmosphere for the remainder of your employment. It may be set deliberately, but most of the time it’s done without much thought. The most common tones are negative and include the following:
Anger. Did you quit or fire someone in a moment of rage? Did the initiation of the split start with an impulsive venting? Was a long list of accusations hurled at someone? Did long-simmering resentments erupt? Whether and how anger gets expressed tells you a great deal about the initiator and what he values.
Indifference. This tone is often set when employers dismiss employees. Perhaps a bunch of people are herded into a room and told collectively that they are being let go, possibly by an outside consultant. How the experience of those laid off is anticipated and accommodated can be quite telling.
Excitement. This tone isn’t negative in itself, but it can have negative repercussions. It is usually set by an employee leaving for something she is eager to pursue. When the employee expresses excitement, her consideration for the feelings of those being left behind — or the lack of consideration — is revealing.
The responder can’t blame his response exclusively on the initiator’s tone. Too often, the person on the receiving end of the departure accepts the emotional tone set by the initiator and thoughtlessly follows through. An angry initiation is followed with a counterattack. An indifferent layoff is followed by a listless transition. An excited departure announcement is followed by a resentful spurning.
Although you can’t control your emotional response to such an important event, you can govern your behavior. When adults tell me that they yelled at their boss because their boss yelled at them, they sound like impulsive third-graders blaming others for their outbursts.
Although the initiator sets the tone, you are responsible for how you behave in reaction. It’s a choice.
Fairness matters. Regardless of the reasons for the split, both parties want to feel fairly treated. (Of course, there will be times when no one agrees on what fair treatment may be.) Employers who lose employees want to feel that they are not being left in the lurch, that they have gotten reasonable notice given the importance of the person’s position, that they can reasonably transition to others. Employees who are terminated want to feel that their past contributions have been valued and that they are receiving fair compensation for their loyalty in the form of severance and support.
In the end, how people comport themselves in these difficult situations shows more than they know about who they are and what they value. Also, people not involved in the situation notice, may decide that they don’t like what they see, and decide that it’s time for them to move on too.
Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.