Know How To Go

Knowing when to leave our jobs and what to consider in the process are hot topics for Coaching Forum readers. My columns “Know When to Go” (October 2010) and “Managing an Exit” (October 2012) generated questions and conversation when they were published, and they still do. Those columns covered concrete issues such as timing, negotiating the terms of a departure, and identifying a confidant as you leave.

In recent months, however, these dialogues have surfaced more nuanced aspects of making a job change, and they deserve our attention, too. How do we honor ourselves, our feelings, and our work during a leave-taking that can be highly emotional, even when we’re headed for something better? How do we let go and graciously handle others’ reactions such as surprise accolades or even unexpected disrespect?

Clients who have left their positions do it with more success when they are thoughtful about how they want to leave after the basics are in place. This may sound counterintuitive because the basics include financial agreements, where we’re going (even if it’s to look for an as yet unknown new job), and when we’re doing it. We may think we’re “done” planning when these important markers are clear, but my experience suggests otherwise. In fact, leaving a job can be similar to riding a roller coaster as other people find out, talk about it, and say and do things we don’t expect.

Here are just a few examples of what may be in store:

  • What if there are outpourings of support you didn’t anticipate? Are you going to second guess your direction and question whether you’re doing the right thing?
  • Or, what if the door closes tightly behind you when you make your announcement? You thought you would create an orderly transition, but you are told, essentially, that your chair has already been filled? Then what?

We can learn from clients who have weathered big job changes with grace.

Here’s what they do:

  1. They notice, honor, and gently detach from the intensity of their own reactions to unforeseen events. What if people who loudly communicated their disapproval of your work suddenly express their appreciation now that you’re leaving? How will that land for you? Will you be angry? Maybe, but how can you acknowledge your (justifiable) reaction without letting it overtake you? How can you empathize with yourself and let the strong feelings in and eventually pass? Instead of getting angry, can you simply say thank you and move on?
  2. Leaders who are making a job change manage their emotions when other people react to their departure with projections and other off-base responses. Some colleagues may be jealous, others may be happy for us, and still others may be indifferent. No matter what our bosses, peers, and subordinates do, we can be sure that their actions are about them. They are not ours to own, fix, or manage. That doesn’t mean we can’t be empathetic or understand. After all, your leaving is going to affect others. Although your job change may be an exciting opportunity for you, it could be a straight out loss for them. How can you be present for them, allowing them to share their feelings without taking it personally?
  3. Leaders who successfully make a transition realign the boundaries of their roles while they’re finishing their old jobs. In other words, once they’ve resigned, they learn to let go and (graciously) become lame ducks.
    • We need to consider that our work might shift the moment we say we are departing. Successful nurse leaders who change jobs think about what is and what is not their responsibility now that they are leaving. Is it their responsibility to find their replacement? Usually the answer is no. Is it their responsibility to leave the job in good condition so that others can pick it up? Usually the answer is yes, but what does “good condition” mean? Will others want to come in and make significant changes? These questions may seem clear cut, but for most managerial positions, they are not.
    • We will have more insight if we are aware of how we handle the wishes of others in “ordinary” times. If we are accustomed to attending to others’ needs before our own, that’s what we’ll do here, too. Although that might be helpful up to a point, it can be detrimental to the organization when other people need to pick up our responsibilities. Those who are staying may want to change what we’ve done and create their own way forward. Trying to do this for them will annoy them, and exhaust us and everyone else in the process.
    • There are 2 questions that can help us assess our instincts to “help”:
      • Who am I serving by doing this (or offering this, or saying this)?
      • Is doing this (or offering it or saying it) in my own or the organization’s best interest?

Leaders who announce their intention to leave, but stay to make a transition, may notice that their feelings about the organization and their team members evolve in the process. This is normal. You may see sides of our colleagues that you have not perceived before. What you see doesn’t have to be ominous or unpleasant. In fact, you may see the best of your teammates as they face losing you.

Whether your departure is sweet or otherwise, how can you take care of yourself during these emotionally demanding times? How can you take in what you wish, sensitively deflect that is not yours to own, and stay balanced and present as you do it? Your answers will lie in other parts of your life: when significant events happen, what do you do to stay present for special moments of joy, sorrow, and places in between? Your answers are your own “best practices,” and if you can bring them to the work of leaving a job, you will help everyone successfully adjust to your collective new reality.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader

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