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The Understated Importance of Walking Away

The meteoric rise of social media has brought forth truly inspiring stories. We see athletes overcoming great odds to become champions. We see individuals beating disease and certain death when doctors gave them a terminal diagnosis. We watch humankind come together to raise each other up – through donation to those who are less fortunate, through joining together to rebuild after a disaster, saving animals from being caught or hurt… The list goes on and is infinite. It’s wonderful and it inspires all of us to be better people in serving the world around us – not just ourselves.

That said, perhaps what I’m about to discuss will be viewed as a negative, pessimistic regard for life. On the contrary, I would like for you to try and view this from a positive perspective. I know – seems impossible. But, give it a try and perhaps you’ll see what I mean.

I have been a professional in Corporate America for over twenty years. I’ve worked for some of the largest companies in the world, as well as for some of the smallest organizations where you could count the total number of employees on both hands and maybe a foot. Regardless of the size of the organization, high performing employees tend to exhibit similar characteristics. Personally, I have been surrounded by these people throughout my career and I have made several observations. While the vast majority of those characteristics are positive, there are a handful that are negative – usually to the detriment of the individual, which then negatively impacts the organization.

High-performing employees regularly feel a level of dedication to their work, their teammates, and the success of their employer that goes above and beyond that of the prototypical 9-to-5 employee. Often, these individuals will also place their own personal and family needs below those of the employer – singularly focused on business success at all costs. While this mindset is noble, employers and employees alike should be cautious of this kind of behavior. Often times, these employees become susceptible to a myriad of other problems and often times leads to mental, physical, emotional, financial, and even family breakdowns.

I have observed these individuals who have become so rooted in this ‘dedication at all costs’ characteristic can clearly articulate the issue and acknowledges it is extremely unhealthy. However, their dedication wins over their ability to step back and re-evaluate the situation. Similarly, employers will often identify these high-performers and will allow this negative behavior to continue undeterred – simply because the employer is reaping tremendous benefit from this person’s efforts. In either case, there is an acknowledgement this behavior is detrimental to the individual and must be addressed.

Both the individual and the organization have a responsibility to each other to help stem this detrimental behavior. Organizations should be actively looking to identify people who are regularly working extended hours to keep up with their workload, are seemingly emotionally unstable, or are not taking adequate vacation time. Employers should also make taking paid time off a requirement for employees – not allowing them to simply aggregate their time off until the year end, but rather strongly encourage, even reward, employees who take time throughout the year.

Individuals, though, tend to hold the largest responsibility in this equation. They are well-aware of the negative results of their dedication. Children and spouses often feel neglected or will complain of a lack of attention and/or time with the individual. These individuals will also often times feel extremely overworked and under-appreciated, forcing these people to work even harder than they have previously – perpetuating a self-destructive cycle. Physical and mental tolls can become catastrophic, negative self-value takes over, and the overall destruction of the person will inevitably ensue.

The solution? Simple.

Walk away.

I acknowledge we are living and working in a society where the rich become richer and the middle class keep working harder for the same returns. The average worker is connected 24 by 7 by 365, living in perpetual fear that an unanswered email on a weekend or holiday may constitute grounds for being a target in a layoff or for a poor annual performance review. However, too few of us are asking the most important question: “If this is how my employer operates, is this really where I want to work? Do I want to dedicate my time and efforts to an organization that simply values my ability to make the owners and executives richer, while I lose touch with my family, myself, and my sanity?” Especially for these people with high levels of dedication, they know how to answer the questions, but simply ignore the answers as an inconvenient truth.

The successful organizations of the future will easily grasp the following principle – people are not cattle. Employees are not ‘easily replaceable’. Bonuses should not be for management first, but for the people who take care of the details on a daily basis – things management so often ignores or takes for granted.

And for those high-performers, knowing when to ‘walk away’ and find those organizations will be critical. Don’t allow yourself to fall victim to Corporate America. Don’t lose yourself for those corporate officers who wouldn’t even know your name if you stood in front of them and shook their hand. That is not who we are. And it’s not what we should accept as a workforce and as a society. We can do better.

Walk away.

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