Breaking up is hard to do

A heart broken into two pieces. Think: "Break up".

Breaking up is painful, but pulling the trigger can be harder than picking up the pieces. That’s why break ups don’t always happen when they should, which makes them all the more painful. Whether we’re talking about leaving a partner, quitting a job, or letting an employee go, severing ties can be so uncomfortable that we put it off far too long.

Ideally a sorting process naturally occurs in the job market – people take jobs and join organizations for which there is a good fit, and people leave organizations and jobs if the fit isn’t quite right. But far, far too often this doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen in a timely fashion. This hurts everyone. If you have ever had a job you disliked, you know how miserable it can be. Simply getting yourself to work and through the day is exhausting, the stress takes its toll on life outside of work, and these negative emotions can even begin to manifest physically or through depression. It’s bad news for employers, too. While “not engaged” employees may not be as productive and creative as their engaged counterparts, disengaged employees act out their frustration in counterproductive ways and are a drag for everyone else to be around and work around.

We know this. So why is it so hard to pull the plug when it’s clearly time? There are a laundry list of reasons, which I have begun enumerating for your reading pleasure:

  • Simple inertia. It takes effort to search for a new job or a new employee. There are resumes and interviews to handle, not to mention making time to think, plan, and coordinate with people across the organization. It requires extra effort to get the ball rolling and then execute. Paradoxically, if you’ve been suffering with a miserable job or direct report, it can be even harder to put forth the effort.
  • Lack of imagination. Maybe you simply cannot envision things being different than they are now. This is especially prevalent if you’ve been in a field or with a company a long time, or if the employee has been with the company for a long time. Maybe you’ve gotten into such a niche, you don’t think you could make a place for you somewhere else.
  • Frog in a pot of boiling water effect. If you’ve been in a crummy job or put up with a challenging employee for long enough, you get used to the misery; it begins to feel normal. Maybe the employee was initially able to disguise their incompetence or surly nature and it surfaced increasingly across time. Maybe you are willing to accept certain downsides in a job (no person or job is perfect), but more and more negatives keep popping up. It is easier to accept the situation if it evolves compared to if it had been laid out at the start.
  • The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Yes, this is a crummy job/employee – but have you seen what’s out there? You probably have friends and colleagues who’ve regaled you with their own nightmares. It can make you hesitant to start over out of fear of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
  • Rationalization and/or irrational optimism for the future. If you look around one day and realize you hate your job, you’re probably going to ask yourself, “why am I still here?” Your mind will happily try to reduce your feelings of dissonance by coming up with all sorts of reasons why that job isn’t really that bad after all – “At least I have a job!” or “Great benefits!” and “Maybe things will magically change for the better if I just hold on!” On the other side of the equation, it’s “they’re just going through a difficult time!” and “They just need more feedback!”
  • Guilt feelings. The majority of us are not sadists, and we don’t want to cause other people harm. Letting someone go often causes feelings of rejection, so it’s rarely easy to do, no matter how right the choice is for everyone. Leaving an organization also means leaving relationships, and if you made friends with coworkers, you may feel like you’re leaving innocents on a sinking ship, even if you intellectually know that we’re all responsible for our own rescue.

So what is the moral of the story? First and foremost, do due diligence! The breaking-up analogy extends to the courting phase of a relationship. When people are sizing up one another to determine fit, whether it’s business or personal, we are just as likely to don those rose-colored glasses that magnify the good and minimize the negatives. Second, know the stumbling blocks and act in time! Everyone knows it hurts worse and longer if we peel a bandage off slowly. You can act quickly and firmly and still be compassionate. Life is too short to hesitate around decisions that impact quality of life on a day to day basis. Whether you’ve been putting band-aids over a toxic employee or a crummy job – just rip that bad boy off.

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