I get the feeling I am going to be asked to leave my job by the end of the year—things aren’t working out. The money is good and I’d like to stay as long as I can, but I wonder if I should jump before I’m pushed. Your advice?
—Name withheld, Toronto
Unless you think you can endure a slow spiral of anxiety and awkwardness—and you don’t give a darn about making your co-workers twist and squirm along with you—get out now.
Otherwise, brace yourself for the all-too-common organizational ordeal of being a “dead man walking”. Should you need examples of how that plays out, take a look at the unfolding agonies of Roberto Gonzales, US attorney general, and Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank. Like you, both men want to tough it out and stay as long as they can. Like you, they probably shouldn’t try. Dead men walking rarely get reprieves.
Now, we realize dead man walking is something of a grim term but so is the experience, which, in company situations, actually happens much more often to people in the lower and middle managements than at the top, as with Gonzales and Wolfowitz.
Regardless of where in the organization it happens, however, the dynamic occurs when everyone senses a person is going to be fired, including the person himself, but the boss delays making it official.
The reasons run the gamut from fear of legal action to lack of guts. But most often, bosses stall because they want the organization to see—and, figuratively speaking, sign off on—the necessity of the firing decision. Maybe that’s cruel to the waiting “victim”, but most bosses would rather be known as cautious than quick-triggered.
The result of that impulse can take a variety of dysfunctional forms. The most simple is when the dead man walking is a co-worker, in which case an office can slowly, but surely, become subsumed with shared embarrassment and discomfort. But if the dead man walking happens to be a boss, the most typical response is paralysis, as people wait to see where the chips will fall and how they will be rearranged.
Alternatively, a dead boss walking can give rise to frantic manoeuvring. After all, people may care about the individual on his way to the gallows—they may even vehemently oppose his fate—but self-preservation is a compelling human instinct. At any rate, whether there be awkwardness, paralysis or politicking, you’re talking about environments of diminished productivity. You can only imagine how much—or, rather, how little—meaningful work is getting done right now at the US attorney’s office and at World Bank headquarters.
If the organizational toll of dead man walking is bad, it’s obviously worse for the “man” himself. Both Gonzales and Wolfowitz are certainly noticing that “friends” are suddenly unable to make eye contact or return phone calls. They are seeing once-loyal lieutenants claiming neutrality, while surreptitiously pledging their allegiance elsewhere. They are watching their relevance slip away, along with their hopes and dreams of making an impact. Like every dead man walking, they are discovering that jumping might have its merits. The outcome may be the same, but it’s faster and hurts less.
Let’s be clear: We’re not taking a stand on the merits of either the Gonzales or Wolfowitz case. Both are more about politics than substance. But we will say that both men committed classic managerial mistakes that, not surprisingly, landed them in their dead man walking binds. Finding himself in the middle of a public-relations conflagration about the firing of eight assistant attorneys, Gonzales tried to minimize and contain, rather than get out in front with full disclosure.
His too-typical crisis management behaviour of dodging and weaving gave others the chance to define him—and his opponents (and those of President Bush) gladly took the opportunity and ran with it.
As for Wolfowitz—he took the top job at the World Bank with a clear change mandate. That kind of pronouncement invariably breeds resistance. At the World Bank, an entrenched bureaucracy, it bred an insurgency, and Wolfowitz’s relationship with his companion conveniently provided the ammunition for its soldiers-in-waiting. Of course, Wolfowitz might have handled his companion’s promotion with perfect ethics. It doesn’t matter. His circumstances, like those surrounding Gonzales, don’t seem to suggest an 11th-hour stay.
Your case, of course, doesn’t seem nearly as dire, nor is the entire world watching. But we’d still give you the same advice. Go now before you and your company enter an ugly downward spiral.
You will, most understandably, miss the pay cheques you would have earned. But, in the long run, your dignity, and your act of organizational sacrifice, will be worth more.