I met a young technician once who was at the end of her rope at work: “I work with three doctors, and they’re out of control!” she said, desperate to get some advice. “They hate each other and now they refuse to work together. They won’t even take phone calls from clients who aren’t ‘theirs.’”
“Have you talked about this with the practice owner?” I asked.
“YES!” she said. “He doesn’t want to hear it. Any time someone brings up the trouble among the doctors, he either starts yelling at us or he gets in his car and leaves.”
He leaves? Where does he go? Does he take his phone? (And does he have a suntan when he gets back?) How long is he gone?
“Sometimes he doesn’t come back until the next day,” she said.
I was standing there trying to imagine what it must be like to work in an environment where personal animosities have gotten so disruptive when the technician asked me: “So — what can I do?”
Part of me wanted to say, “You can do this!” and get her fired up to make changes in her practice. After all, I was sure there were some steps she could take to try to make things better. In the past, I probably would have focused exclusively on those options. But I don’t do that any more.
Instead I asked: “Why haven’t you quit?”
Harrington Up the Middle
When I was a kid, I occasionally found myself participating in ill-advised, non-parent-approved activities like padless,
helmetless tackle football. On one such occasion, my team included Mike Harrington*, the most obnoxious, perhaps least-liked kid in our entire neighborhood. During the game, the opposing team made it clear that they would very much like my team to hand the football to our unfortunately irritating colleague and send him straight up the field into their midst. So we did. Again and again.
We’d huddle up and someone would say, “You know what’s worked well so far? Harrington up the middle.” Everyone (except Harrington) would agree, clap our hands in unison, and off we’d go. Again and again, the outcome was the same. Harrington got clobbered. Every. Single. Time.
I’m not proud that I participated in this, and I’m grateful in retrospect that Harrington didn’t get significantly injured. I wish I could go back and intervene on behalf of this poor kid, but I was simply too immature and worried about fitting in. I still look back and feel guilty.
But I learned a few lessons from that situation. The relevant one here is: sometimes the deck is so stacked against you that you simply are not going to break through. When that’s the case, the more times you grab the ball and charge right up the middle, the more times you are going to get punished.
The same can be true in our jobs. Some situations probably just aren’t going to get better. In some scenarios, trying to be a hero will only get you ground down. That’s why the goal in life should never be to overcome all obstacles, but rather to recognize which obstacles should be overcome, and which ones you should just turn and walk away from.
You Have Options
Please know that I did not jump to tell this technician that she needed to quit her job. I simply wanted to know why she had not done so already, because she seemed truly miserable. She told me she hadn’t left yet because she had wonderful hours and the pay was quite good.
It’s fantastic to have a “can-do” attitude. I pride myself on having that mentality and generally being a glass-half-full kind of guy. Sometimes, however, we need to remember that we have more options than just “can-do.”
Here are three choices we all have:
- Work to improve your position – The technician and I discussed a variety of techniques and approaches for improving morale, creating personal boundaries, and trying to bring the fragmented team together. I made clear the fact that she would have the most success with changes that are within her control (changes in her perspective, strengthening of peer relationships, etc), because no one can change how another person thinks or behaves.
- Accept your position (at least temporarily) – Unless you own the practice where you work, there is nothing wrong with taking a breath, stepping back, and taking your hands off the wheel from time to time. When you reach peak frustration, you can think to yourself, “This is not my practice. It’s just a job.” It’s not an ideal perspective to have all the time, but taking this break has saved many of us from getting in our cars and just driving away.
- Walk away – Why is this option so taboo? I think it’s because we have been taught quitting is equal to failure. That’s lunacy.
We can all agree that if you quit things as soon as they become difficult, you will not get far in your career or life in general. You can miss out on some of the most rewarding aspects of life.
We should also agree that there are some situations where quitting is the best option by far. There is no honor in sacrificing yourself in an unwinnable situation. Martyrdom is not a stepping-stone on the path to career success. If you are in a terrible work environment, there is NO shame in leaving. Be smart and professional about it: do your absolute best to avoid burning bridges, and know where you are going when you leave.
Make the Right Choice for you
After our conversation, the technician told me she wasn’t ready to leave her job. The benefits were too good. Instead she wanted to start by trying to do what she could to improve her situation while accepting the parts of her job she didn’t have control over. She felt much better just knowing she had options.
Too often we convince ourselves that successful people always overcome and never walk away. That’s ridiculous. If you’re getting clobbered in a game that’s rigged, never stop playing hard, but realize that the best thing you can do may be going to play with a different team. That’s a kind of success in its own right.