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Ending it well when it has to end

Many of the moments I spend with clients in my private and group coaching have to do with the end of work.

There are some great reasons to leave jobs – the opportunity to step into an exciting industry or company, finding a job that comes closer to meeting more of your needs, going to graduate school, relocating for personal reasons, but sometimes work ends because something has gone south. Sometimes it’s your call and sometimes it’s not.

Under just about any circumstance, the end can challenge us. Separation and change evoke all kinds of thoughts, emotional responses, and behaviors. The transition period always includes some kind of loss, even when we’ve sought the change: the loss of being the resident expert, the loss of familiar routine, knowing the ebbs and flows of the business cycle, even knowing where and with whom to have lunch.

Some of my ideas about how to manage the end can lead to learning and wisdom, even in the most unclear times:

  1. Take responsibility for what’s yours, and not what’s not yours.

In the imminently useful book Difficult Conversations, the authors introduce the idea of mutual accountability, meaning that in any circumstance that we’d categorize as ‘difficult’, there is a way to make sense of how both parties made that possible. Sure, occasionally some of us have the misfortune of working for a true monster, but most of the time that’s not the case.  

Even if we bear 1% of the responsibility for what could be different, it’s worth learning from that 1%. If we reflect on what led to an end, we can usually uncover a few lessons that will serve us well in the future. Can you manage the relationship with your manager better in the future? Build a stronger internal network? Keep your skills more current? Ask for different types of projects? Be more in tune with signals about changes around you? Take earlier action when you suspect a relationship is becoming toxic?

On the other hand, there’s no reason to take baggage with you on the way out that doesn’t belong to you. Guilt about those left behind or residual bitterness about the ways you were wronged in the past doesn’t serve you. Move into your new role with a clear head and open (and wise) heart.

  1. Cultivate self-compassion. It’s hard enough when change is difficult, it’s not necessary to beat yourself up for having feelings in response to the change. Change is full of complexity. Accepting, experiencing and processing the emotions change evokes is essential to moving forward.

If you’re surprised that you’re a little sad to leave a job that’s been driving you crazy, that’s okay. If you’re feeling some generosity and care towards the boss that didn’t support you and ultimately led to your exit, that’s okay. If you’re frustrated at yourself for feeling fearful of stepping into the change you asked for, that’s okay. There is a balanced way to experience and not be overwhelmed by the complex feelings associated with change. Be kind and gentle to yourself. Letting yourself experience those feelings won’t set you back - on the contrary, experiencing those feelings will free you so you can go forward.

Share those complex feelings with those you trust – most of us have been there.

Of course, if these feelings are becoming overwhelming and interfere with your ability to move forward in your daily life, a professional can help you make sense of what’s going on and support creating a path out.

  1. Remember you’re always making an impression

It’s tempting to think the work of establishing and maintaining relationship at a place you’re leaving is over when you walk out the door. We’ve all wanted to give the finger over our shoulder at one exit or another. Resist the temptation. Do what you can to leave with your head held high and your reputation intact. You’re making an impression through all of this.

I’ll never forget a time early in my career when my longtime boss announced his upcoming departure. I regularly did work with both my boss and our CEO (my boss’s boss), and was frequently witness to the up-and-down relationship between them, so it didn’t strike me as that much of a surprise that my boss had finally decided enough was enough. Two days after the announcement, while at a meeting with the CE0, my boss’s name and the news came up in conversation, and the CEO leaned over to me and said: “I knew I did the right thing by firing him.” Firing him? That thought hadn’t entered my mind until the CEO said something, clouding for me what could have been a graceful goodbye.

In the meantime, my exiting boss didn’t miss an opportunity to throw our organization and the CEO under the proverbial bus, resurfacing old complaints, fantasizing about how great his life would be when he was free of us.

My regard for both of these important figures in my career was tarnished by how they conducted themselves at the end – in fact, years later, these are among the strongest memories I hold of them.

These guys weren’t off the hook just because their professional relationship was ending; we were all still watching.

It’s deeply human to feel things during a period of change. As with most moments in our lives, we have a choice about how we handle the end of work. Imagine yourself a year after the change. How do you want to think about yourself? How do you want current, future and past colleagues to think of you? Let that vision guide your decisions and behaviors.

Need a hand thinking through how to navigate a workplace change? Send me a note.

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