I had a situation gnawing at me for the better part of a year. I was working with a group for several months and had a good rapport with almost everyone. One person in particular was stirring conflict in ways I struggled to respond to. He was dismissive of my approach and methods. He questioned the direction the group was going. His seniority meant he held a large amount of power to halt or even divert discussion. I felt disrespected almost every time we interacted. He’s the person I thought about when I read the section on CAFA in 7 Forms of Respect. I wished for a way to resolve the conflicts we were having. None of the approaches I tried seemed to work.
The interactions between us occupied part of my working mind for almost all of our time together. The rest of the group’s momentum, once energized, slowly began to splinter and stall. Doubt crept in, for them as much as for me. I wasn’t sure if I could find a path to helping them accomplish what so many in the group wanted. So after weeks of consideration, I chose to suspend my relationship with this group. I sent a message to my clients that was private and polite. I explained to them in some detail why I was leaving and I wished them the best.
what happened next
The people who received my email took it seriously. The group’s dynamic changed after I left. In a short period of time, they began to make progress on a lot of the issues I had encouraged them to address. I’m grateful for how my story turned out because I know it doesn’t always happen. This group has more work to do, of course. No organization under racial injustice and vulture capitalism is perfect. But in this case, leaving might have been the one action I could take to help them get to a place that my presence could not.
I’ve been thinking about the lessons contained in this story. I’ve debated even whether to share this story in a public way. It feels vulnerable, even threatening, for me as a consultant to admit any sort of of defeat. I’m doing so in the hopes that it helps another person who feels stuck wherever they are. Here are a few reasons why it might be in your best interest to step away from a client, company, or conflict.
To jumpstart change. The leaders of this group respected me. They respected my work. I know this because they often told me so, usually after a difficult encounter or meeting with the one person who didn’t. But as I endured insult after insult, a question in my mind began to grow. Was I convincing the rest of the group, by accident, that things weren’t as bad as they seemed? Did this group allow themselves to think that because I stuck with it? Were they hoping I would come back next time with a brand-new solution? Or that this problem would go away? Was that my hope? Is that why I kept showing up?
Creating distance can preserve your sanity and avoid future frustration. It can help keep the pot from boiling over. It can remind people that not every conflict resolves in a clean way. Leaving can also free up mental bandwidth that we may choose to apply somewhere else. I may feel too much like a retreat, or even a copout, to leave altogether. If that’s the case, consider a pause that’s indefinite or even temporary. Use the distance to regroup and plan a different approach.
To ease a difficult situation. Working against the status quo often generates conflict. “Why should we change? Why should we trust you? Who are you to tell us how to do things?” These questions are valid only as far as they provide clarity of purpose or generate forward movement. When they don’t, they can stall the momentum or desire for change. We may find ourselves in a place where the grindstone is wearing us down but we’re not getting any sharper.
Left to their own devices, the members of this group had to pivot. They had to look inward, to themselves and each other, to decide their next move. They had to have hard conversations about why I left. While I was there, I may have been keeping the cogs from moving backwards. I may have been holding the group in stasis so things wouldn’t get worse. But that stasis might have meant they couldn’t get better, either. Leaving can help the cogs move again, maybe backwards, but hopefully forwards.
To give someone else a chance to make progress. Think about the concept of Founder’s Syndrome. It’s a term that means a person, often a founder or co-founder, can’t bear to leave the company they started. They might mention succession plans or describe a new direction for the organization but never follow through. Some are leaders who can’t or don’t want to let go. Other times, a longtime leader wants to get the organization to a better place before they leave. But anyone is at risk of staying longer than is useful. They might want to see through a particular project or conflict to feel a sense of closure on the work. I wanted to solve this problem because I felt a responsibility to it. I stayed because it felt like I was always on the cusp of making progress.
Sometimes progress isn’t possible. You may not have the combination of skills that an organization needs at that moment in time. Consider a situation through a program manager lens. Building something, say an organization, program, or team, asks for a specific set of skills. Maintaining that organization, program, or team asks of us a different set. Making change there, and making it stick, often requires yet another combination of skills. Someone else’s skills, background, or experience in your now-vacant position might be exactly what we need to get unstuck.
when it doesn’t work
Throughout my career, I’ve seen how a person leaving a position or team often leads to surprising outcomes. That doesn’t always happen, though.
When the cost of change is higher than the cost of resilience. Leaving doesn’t always spark change. Change is rarely easy, no matter the circumstances. Some groups would rather go with what they have then grapple with your concerns. Making do without you may still be cheaper than transformation.
When the audience is not receptive. Are your recommendations popular? If they’re not, it doesn’t mean your ideas are bad. They could be exactly what this situation calls for. Your audience might not be ready for them. Or, for whatever reason, you were the wrong person to carry the message. A factor outside of your control could be at play. Your race, gender, or another aspect of your identity might have something to do with it. The Centre for Community Organizations created a graphic to explain the experiences of many women of color, often Black women, who are new to a workplace. While initially welcomed and made to feel supported, that support soon fades. This is a well-known phenomenon that most organizations refuse to address.
Even when these workers have great ideas, they can be pushed out for rocking the boat too much for leaders’ tastes. Company leaders may see each departing woman in isolation, separate from all the others who resigned for similar reasons. They may still think things aren’t bad enough to warrant change. Or it could be that this group wouldn’t trust anybody to do this work; no one could’ve made a difference here.
When you can’t afford to. Choosing to leave this client cost me real income. I made the choice to risk my future potential over staying in a situation where I felt I was losing my effectiveness. Not everyone can do that. Not everyone has the same timeline or threshold of tolerance, either.
harvesting the rewards
Change is a powerful thing. I didn’t know what would happen when I quit that project. We can imagine any number of paths that situation could’ve gone. I’m even lucky that I got to hear what happened after I left. Most people who leave a place don’t get to find out, good or bad, what happened next.
I took a risk in stepping away from that relationship. But if I hadn’t left, could I have guaranteed a better outcome than this one? On a long enough time scale, change is a certainty. It may come at a cost and it may happen without us. But if nothing else has worked, consider giving it a try.