You’re an administrator on a campus where things look increasingly dire. Decisions are being made in isolation, and they rarely make sense. The financial picture is bleak. You have deep concerns about the integrity of your senior leaders. Speaking up is now a dangerous activity. A lot of good people have left, and more will be gone soon.
Those are all signs that an organization is in trouble. If they reflect the current state of affairs at your college or university, here is an important next question to consider: “Why are you still working there?”
You may already be on the job market and looking for your next administrative role. Given the state of the economy, it may take a while to find your next gig. Or your career prospects or personal situation may make a move seem out of the question right now. But what if you do have reasonable career options and yet have made a conscious choice to stay? What is driving you to remain true to an organization that others have abandoned?
People stay in bad organizations for many of the same reasons they stay in bad relationships: economic dependence, fear of uncertainty, misguided belief that things will get better, and desire to protect the children. But like a bad relationship partner, a bad organization can convince you that you are unworthy of anything better. That may be one of several reasons why you have failed to make a move. Even in this era of great turmoil all around us, and especially in academe, it’s important to ask yourself why you are staying put and what it means for your career.
Are you staying because you are comfortable? When work is pointless or overwhelming, your colleagues are incompetent or conniving, and you feel underpaid, leaving is an obvious strategy for reducing misery. But what if none of that is true for you? Is it possible that you find deep meaning in your work, are committed to the students, enjoy spending time with your colleagues, and are OK with the compensation? Do you have a strong sense of institutional affiliation and like telling people what you do and where?
If some or all of those things are true, you may be willing to tolerate chaos and questionable behavior in exchange for the opportunity to preserve the components of your work life that bring you satisfaction — and maybe even joy. You very likely have told yourself that all organizations have their downsides, and you refuse to let a bad culture drive you away from a place where you belong.
There is certainly no shame in wanting to be comfortable in your work and life. It feels good to have what you need and to know what to expect.
But the problem with being comfortable is that the feeling doesn’t always last. Surprise events occur, expectations evolve, and what worked for so long suddenly doesn’t. Leadership shenanigans may lead to a scandal that tarnishes the brand of your institution and your own reputation. Your role could suddenly be deemed unnecessary. The money situation could get worse. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the sense of comfort you have been clinging to could evaporate.
Are you staying because you are an optimist? Maybe you’re one of those folks who tend to predict good outcomes, who are confident about the future, and who usually imagine that things will get better instead of worse. Do you find yourself saying, “This certainly can’t go on forever,” when other people complain? Do you believe calamity creates new possibilities? If so, you may imagine:
- Suddenly vacant roles may offer the chance for career advancement at your campus.
- If even more people leave, you might be offered rewards for staying.
- An opportunity to build crisis-management skills will look good on your résumé.
Optimistic people tend to be resilient. They have an ability to stay focused and positive when others are bogged down by fear or skepticism. That is a useful trait in any career.
However, too much optimism can show up in some dangerous ways. One example: The “illusion of control” can manifest itself in a belief that it is possible to influence the outcomes of external events. Another example is the superiority illusion in which you perceive your personal capabilities or talents to be unusually high, or much higher than they actually are. And finally, there is unrealistic optimism — a belief that you are generally, or perhaps even cosmically, protected from the negative events that tend to befall others.
All of those illusions can lead optimists to stay inside troubled or abusive organizations longer than they should. While optimists have many valuable qualities, a propensity to look reality in the eye is not one of them. Wanting to see the best in people and organizations, optimists tend to seek evidence that supports the image of the workplace they want, rather than the workplace they have. This leads them to stay inside bad organizations when leaving would be far wiser.
If you consider yourself to be highly optimistic, is it possible that you are underestimating how treacherous your situation has become?
Finally, are you staying because you are needed? Turning around an underperforming organization is an excellent way to create a better future for yourself. It can serve as an excellent résumé builder if you want to move on and a path toward greater stability if you want to stay. If you truly believe you can improve things, it makes sense to give it your best shot. However, it is worth asking yourself if you are staying because you think you can make an impact or because you enjoy feeling needed.
While you may not feel appreciated by the people in charge, there is a certain headiness that comes from being considered essential by colleagues you respect and admire. You feel valued, and even superhuman, when people say things like, “If you leave, there is no hope for us,” or, “You are the only person we trust.” Being told, “You are the only one brave enough to say what needs to be said,” may make you feel bold and courageous. When you are so clearly indispensable, you might feel that leaving would represent a deep betrayal of those who have expressed so much confidence in your abilities.
And really, what would the place do without you? No doubt you are doing the jobs of three or four people because the organization has failed to invest resources appropriately. Yes, you are exhausted and your personal relationships are suffering, but you are keeping the ship from sinking, and that is what matters.
While you are busy being highly responsible, have you thought about the message your heroic behavior is sending?
In an organization that is short on vision, competence, and integrity, people like you — people with a lot of talent, a strong work ethic, and an obvious moral compass — stand out. Your tenacity signals that your institution is worth investing in, and your continued presence indicates that the situation must be OK, because if it were not, someone like you would be gone by now. Because you are staying, those who had considered leaving may put their plans on hold, too, believing that a turnaround is coming. They may fail to pursue other opportunities because they have a false sense of safety — all thanks to you.
If your organization is in trouble, staying because you are needed might seem like an honorable decision, but it could make things worse. Working harder than anyone else is possible for a while, but eventually things will fall apart. Then what? While it may seem cruel to abandon colleagues and teammates, it often takes a mass exodus of good people to alert board members, donors, and other stakeholders that profound institutional change is essential. The longer you stay, the longer you delay the transformation your institution probably needs if it is going to survive.
That transformation could lead to new directions that do not involve you. It could also include the replacement of your senior-leadership roster. If that happens, the incoming team may view you as part of the old, bad regime and cast you out. By trying to save your institution, you may fail to save yourself.
Just as bad relationships rarely improve, bad organizations rarely turnaround without messy inner revolution or painful outer pressure. If you truly care about your institution, students, and colleagues, leaving now might be the best thing you can do for them — and for yourself.
Allison M. Vaillancourt provides organizational consulting services as a vice president in Segal’s organizational-effectiveness practice. She retired in December 2019 as vice president for business affairs and human resources at the University of Arizona, after three decades as an administrator and faculty member at large public research universities. Browse her previous columns in the Management Corner series on administrative-career issues.