by Gianpiero Petriglieri
Maybe you fell head over heels. Maybe your feelings grew over time. All you know is that you have what everyone is looking for, but few seem to get: A job you love. And you are about to leave it. How do you even start explaining?
The work is great. So is the organization. It’s not them. It’s you. And it was not just a moment of temptation. You have been thinking about it for a while. Even if you might regret it, you must part now. It’s the right time.
After all, you keep telling yourself, you’d better leave while it is your choice. When you still have options. You are too young to get cozy and too good to be taken for granted. You have seen what happens to those who do. One day, they get dumped unceremoniously, and what for, new talent? Or their love slowly curdles into complacency, leaving them going through the motions. No, you won’t let that happen, and ruin the memory of a great modern love.
Because that’s what it is, admit it. Sigmund Freud is often quoted saying, a century ago, that to live a good life we need to be able to love and work. These days, it seems, we must be able to love to work. We no longer want just respect, security, or money from our jobs. We want passion, fulfillment, and surprise too. We want, in a word, romance.
Organizations take those wishes seriously, and do their best to win our hearts. They no longer attract talent with only the promise of material reward. Their recruitment pitches promise that you will find meaning. You will grow. You will be part of a community, and you will help change the world. If you are lucky, you might even get paid well. What’s not to love?
Scholars have spent decades studying what makes organizations win our hearts. It’s called identification. We fall for organizations that reward our efforts not only with good benefit packages, but also with a better version of our selves.
When we are “identified,” we become what we do. We come to think of our selves in ways that incorporate — literally, give our body to — the organization’s values. If my organization is open, rigorous, and entrepreneurial, I must be too. When our organization shines, then, we feel as if we shine. When it struggles, we struggle. Our jobs appear, like other romances, the healthiest and most sensible of addictions.
No wonder we can’t stop thinking about our jobs, and sometimes they make us lose our mind. That is just how romance works. It is demanding. It might consume you. But when it’s good, it makes you feel alive. While it lasts, that is.
I often meet people falling out with a job or an organization that they (used to) love. They often turn to executive courses as a couple’s therapy of sorts, looking for help sorting out their mixed feelings. I understand them well because I am one of them some days. I know the hesitation, the mild guilt, the fear. Am I just being impatient? Will I get over it? Will I find something better, or even just as good? And who will I become if I leave?
Sometimes those questions are signs that we are stuck in a dysfunctional romance with our jobs. Other times, that a fading romance with our job is transforming into a mature love with our work. Most often, it is a bit of both, but it is crucial to tell them apart. You must understand why you are leaving before you can think about how to leave well.
This is how to tell if you are in a dysfunctional romance. You give a lot, you don’t get what you need, and you are made to feel that it is your fault. Breaking up feels hard, even if abuse is involved. You feel captive, for economic and psychological reasons. You want to leave but feel that you can’t afford it and, to be honest, can’t even imagine it. Who would you be?
This is how to tell if your romance is transforming into enduring love. Your passion is turning into devotion, and you begin to discern what exactly is worth being devoted to. You are not sure if it is worth being devoted to a job. For all you might love it, a job will never love you back. But you love what you do, and who you have become, in that job. You love the work, and the people you touch through that work. Those deserve your devotion.
If you conclude that you’re in a dysfunctional romance, there is only one thing to do to leave well. Get out as soon as you can. Find what you need to support yourself — another job, a good group of friends — and make a clean cut. It will heal quicker than you can imagine. Even if only parts of your job are like that, draw a clear line between you and those. Once you realize that you are better off, it will free you up. Perhaps, even, to stay on different terms.
If you already have alternatives — an attractive offer, enough support around you — and you are still hesitating, however, you need to take a different tack. You may be shifting your love from your job to your work, and you need to honor the former and embrace the latter. So think twice before you leave. Once about what you need to let go of, and once about what you cannot leave behind. Then make sure you mourn the former, and take the latter with you.
Leaving a job that has made you who you are — even if it has shrunk, you have outgrown it, or both — cannot be quick and easy, and you should not try to make it so. It would be an insult, and a waste of learning. Take time to say goodbye to people and spaces, even to things. Acknowledge the last time you do a task, attend the all-hands meeting, or look out a certain window. If there is a party, make it full of stories. Let sadness be there alongside celebration. When people congratulate you, let them know that condolences might be in order. Feeling sad might make you wonder if you are making a mistake. It could be; you must consider that. But maybe it just means that you have been doing it right all along.
Let your job teach you one last thing: to savor loss. You will need it again. In the mobile workplace of our day and age, being able to move on is as important as being able to commit. We hardly seem talented if we can’t do both. It’s not enough to be able to love our jobs, then. We must also learn to leave them. And if loving well is hard, leaving well is harder still.
While you say your heartfelt goodbyes, remember that when you leave a beloved job there is no need to pack light. Take all you can with you, lest you leave yourself behind. Pay attention to the work that you will continue to do, even elsewhere, and make a mental note of how it might develop now that your job is no longer constraining it. Let the people you want to keep in your working life know that your relationship goes on, and might even develop in new ways. If you already know what those ways might be, it will make both you and them feel good to say it out loud. If you are the kind of person who enjoys making lists, by all means make one of the work and the people you are committed to taking with you.
Finally, turn to the organization. You might have chosen to leave it, but you can still keep the habits and values that you learned there. That is the beauty of identification — you do not have to give it back like your laptop and badge. Many people cherish their time at organizations that they left long ago, and remain loyal to them, because those places helped them discover who they were, what they could do, and where they could go next. Jennifer Petriglieri and I have coined the term “identity workspaces” for those organizations. The mobile talent of our day and age finds them attractive precisely because they make us feel portable. They stay with us long after we are gone.
Sometimes it is necessary to leave a job or an organization in order to love our work better. Because there is one thing that loving well requires that no job or organization can ever teach — the capacity to be alone. Once we can do that, love is no longer a necessity but a joy. We are more likely to set firm boundaries, which make it easier to get close to others and to our work without giving ourselves away. When we can be alone, we become less vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. We can really commit, because we are not captive.
I don’t think it’s worth loving a job, or an organization. Let me repeat it: they will not love you back. But if a job, or an organization, helps you find work and people worth loving, then it has been good, and it is worth honoring, both while you are there and after you are gone.