When the Situation is Untenable

Many years ago I was in a working situation where my wife spoke of it and how I was managing the role with this phrase:  “it is like a continual low grade fever.”   It was a striking line and image; and what we both recognized is that the situation was untenable.   I either needed to find a way to be effective in the role and find the emotional resources to stay in the role, or I needed to accept that I needed to leave. 

It started a conversation and a way of thinking about our work within organizations.   We will consistently will find ourselves in challenging circumstances – stress, perhaps conflicted situations, perhaps unrealistic expectations, or perhaps a supervisor or boss that is simply very difficult to work with for any number of reasons.   That is, any number of factors could make our working situation challenging – well, more than challenging and more than just difficult perhaps even impossible. 

Let’s assume we are not asking for ease and comfort.   And let’s assume that we are more than prepared to tough it out and persevere through stressful situations.   And let’s also assume that we are not asking or assuming we will only work in organizations or situations where we like everyone and get along with one and all.  That is, in what follows I am not for a moment suggesting that we are not willing to accept that the situation is perfect and that thus it is a good place for us to work because we are perfect.   We know that we might well be a source of stress to others!   Of course.  We are not asking for peace and harmony and perfection. But we want to be effective; we want to know we are making a difference and that the challenges and difficulties are not so great or significant such that we simply can no longer do this work and do it with any kind of integrity. 

Is it time to leave – to resign and pursue another job opportunity?  Admittedly, we might not be in a position to make such a call.  Let’s face it:  it is a luxury to be able to even ask the question “should I resign?”  But, if this is an option for us, how do we know if a situation is untenable? 

Without doubt the most critical question is the direct report:   an acquaintance resigned as president of a college because the board chair simply did not let him do his job and kept interfering; or, the person to whom you report does not have your back in the midst of difficult decisions and choices.   Or, you find that the standard practices of good governance are not being followed – the system allows people to work around the lines of accountability and authority and it is not clear where decisions are being made and why.   Or perhaps there are a range of expectations that are either (1) not those that were part of the hiring process or, (2) in the week or week there is no flexibility and too much is expected or piled on.

In other situations, their is a stressful or toxic environment that cannot be bracketed out in the day to day routines . . . whether it is sexual harassment or an organizational culture that leaves us continually debilitated because those around us bullies who simply do not let us do our work with any level of peace of mind.

Then also, we might find ourselves in situations where the expectations of the job are simply too much for us or not well aligned with what we are called to do.  These are not so much unreasonable expectations as rather that we accepted a position and then found it was a bit too much for us, or the situation changed and no in the new context or setting, we feel that our skills and capacities simply do not line up with what is required.

Have a conversation with a significant other – a spouse or colleague, ideally not someone in your same organization, or a close friend.   Describe the situation and ask them to weigh in?  is this merely the deep funk of February?  Or are you wanting to escape from challenges and stress?  Or are you genuinely in a situation that is untenable and that therefore it only makes sense that you initiate the process by which you move towards a transition.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.