Sarah exhaled, a relieved sigh that only came as the company’s doors shut behind her. A weight, a tension that had built first in her shoulders and eventually gnawed at her gut like the early spoiling of a tuna sandwich, was gradually lifted as she strolled toward her parked car. Her arms were laden with a banker’s box, filled to overflowing with the nick-nacks from her desk. It was a heaviness she barely even noticed.
Free….The word repeated over and over in her mind, and she struggled not to break into a smile and a joyous song. Free!
The past two years had been painful, perhaps more so than any other stretch in her career. What had seemed like a good fit professionally and culturally so many years ago had become a recurring nightmarish rollercoaster of emotional turmoil and emotionless disengagement.
In the five years with the company, Sarah had cared as much as anyone about the plight of the company. She’d poured her heart and soul into her work, but had time and time again run into the same barriers, like concrete stanchions placed to guard and protect the company executives. Her efforts at introducing new ideas, time and money-saving practices, and innovative services nearly always steered her into the stationary path of company culture. Bloodied and bruised, each time she’d picked herself up, brushed off the dust, and started again….and again….and again.
Two years earlier, her manager had complained that she was trying to rock the boat. She’s been shocked by the accusation, and when she asked for clarification, she was told to simply do her job and stop seeking out ways to get better. “If management wants something done differently, they’ll let us know the innovations they want,” she was told.
That blew her mind. Hadn’t she been hired because of her knowledge and experience in creating new things? Wasn’t her knowledge and specialized education an asset?
And so, she’d continued, endeavoring the best she could to embrace the mediocrity this Midwestern company rewarded. She’d tried her darnedest to stop caring, to accept the asinine policies and products that continue to drive the company further and further down the path of decline. She’d recognized the insecure leadership that stretched up and down the hierarchy, well-intentioned individuals who oscillated between entitled by decades of loyalty and fearful of anyone below them. Still, she had bitten her tongue, perhaps not enough, and yet far too much. She’d soldiered on, all the while shaking her head and trying her best not to invest too much in her struggles. Hers became less a career and eventually merely a job, an 8-hour daily sentence to be tolerated, not enjoyed.
But today….today was different. She’d finally done it, when she could simply do nothing more, give nothing more, contribute nothing more. Without a word, she’d packed up her things, given a cursory nod to the curious onlookers who passed by her desk, and then she’d walked into the boss’s office and laid her employee badge on his desk.
Oh, the look on his face had been priceless, a twisted expression that tiptoed between shock and relief. For he, too, had seen this coming. Perhaps not the timing or the circumstance, but he’d long recognized the mismatch between Sarah’s talents and the company’s culture. Hell, it was a struggle he too faced. But the “golden handcuffs” of management had held firm. He wasn’t going anywhere, and he knew it, was resigned to it.
As she placed the overflowing banker’s box in her trunk and closed the rear hatch, Sarah felt a slight sadness wash over her. Five years…perhaps not wasted, but still somewhat squandered. She’d given it all she had, and she’d reaped the rewards in terms of her own preparation for what lay ahead. She felt good about that. And yet, the sadness persisted as she exited the parking ramp and pulled onto the tree-lined boulevard that lead away from the complex. She felt bad, but no regrets. She was saving herself, and that was something she’d needed to do for a very long time. No, the melancholy that gripped her, she realized, was something else, almost a feeling of survivor’s guilt. Sure, she’d saved herself….but what of the others? What of all her talented colleagues who remained on the sinking ship, watching with forlorn expressions as she rowed away silently on her own life raft?
Couldn’t they see it, she wondered? There were other life rafts battened to the sides of the rusting hulk of the Titanic….yet, so few would ever use them, preferring instead to simply keep dancing as the orchestra played its respite. Yes, eventually the ship would sink and along with it, so much potential and so many stories of hope and promise. But Sarah could not save them. She could only save herself. She was resolved to it.
So, as her car eased into the Friday traffic, Sarah sighed again. To the west, the sun was just beginning to set. She had sojourned too long, but there was a building excitement in her chest. Yes, tomorrow would be a new day, and she looked forward to that first light, a dawn of possibility, of hope, and yes, of opportunity yet undiscovered.
Oh, how important cultural fit is to the engagement of employees. Too often organizations and individuals alike spend excessive energy, time, and resources to “ensure” fit where fit simply doesn’t exist. The case of Sarah highlights the struggles of an individual from whom the “fit” simply isn’t there and the tribulations that arise from such a pairing. It’s a story we’ve all heard, seen, or experienced ourselves, yet it’s no less common today than it was twenty years ago. Too often we continue to press forward where cultural fit has either faded or never existed. People evolve. Organizations evolve. And when one no longer works for either party, it’s best to part ways. It’s just too bad it took Sarah five years to realize it.
Unfortunately, in many organizations, it’s up to the individual to realize cultural mismatch and ultimately to act on it. Too many organizations are willing to allow such misalignment to persist in the belief that its easier to deal with the results of disengagement than the costs of replacement (both in terms of the human interactions necessary to break ties with an employee AND the actual replacement costs). And so, in more cases than not, employees stay…companies flounder…and many sink with the ship. Here’s hoping for more Sarahs and a bevy of full life rafts….