IIRP President John W. Bailie, Ph.D., maintains a blog called Leading Conflict: How to Fight at Work. In this installment, he discusses how to provide an employee a graceful exit when things just don't work out.


grow or goSometimes a colleague needs to decide: it’s time to grow, or time to go.

In the previous article, Seek Problems, Not Solutions: Leading Conflict Principle 8, I discussed why most leaders avoid disruption and seek stasis in relationships.

Instead, the article recommended that leaders seek the broken places and underdeveloped areas of organizational relationships and culture.

Huge performance dividends are paid to leaders that engage the sharp edges of workplace culture proactively, boldly and strategically. That, in essence, is leading conflict.

Here’s an example.

Many years ago, I was helping to develop a new unit in my organization. The business was growing rapidly and we hired several new staff to meet the growing demand for our services.

One new staff member had a perfect resume. He was technically proficient, worked hard and was exceptionally conscientious. He was willing to work extra hours when needed and readily communicated needs, updates and suggestions for improvements to leadership.

Sounds like a perfect hire, right? Not necessarily.

As described in the article, Creating a Deliberately Developmental Organization, this organization’s culture is very distinct. It is supportive and nurturing, but it also demands intensive collaboration and interpersonal risk-taking. If it was an ice-cream flavor, it would be maple-bacon. It’s a specific thing. For some, it’s an acquired taste.

This type of environment is not for everyone. It’s not enough to be personally brilliant or effective. Staff must also commit to maintaining our unique culture, collectively developing norms for work and behavior, and building their interpersonal competencies.

It’s what we teach to clients and students. We demand the same from ourselves.

If you’re the type of person, who just wants to show up, put your head down, work hard and be left alone, this probably isn’t the place for you. Such was the case with the new staff member mentioned above.

He didn’t like going to so many meetings. He thought the regularly scheduled “team-building” activities were a waste of valuable work time.

Leaders regularly called brainstorming meetings to gather improvement suggestions from staff. He found these sessions exhausting. He openly said that those in charge should just make these decisions on their own and stop interrupting the regular workflow for everyone else. “After all, isn’t that what leaders are paid to do?” he would often challenge.

Additionally, we have no formal disciplinary processes for low-level conflict between employees. Instead, leadership typically facilitate face-to-face meetings to assist staff in repairing relationships and responsibility-taking.

This new staff member also disagreed with this way of doing things. In his opinion, supervisors should just give the person a formal reprimand. “If they don’t change, just fire them,” was his common refrain.

These reactions were all things we’d heard before, or even said ourselves when we first joined the organization.

Our leaders were used to being patient with new staff. Since most new hires were used to high-monitoring organizations in their previous work experiences, suddenly entering a demanding high-trust culture could be jarring.

It can take a while, a few months to a year or more, for new staff to fully adjust to a new way doing things and to trust that it’s not just a bunch psycho-babble smoke and mirrors — that it’s all “for real.”

This staff member had been with us more than a year. They had plenty of training, practice, opportunities to challenge and ask questions, and support from colleagues.

It wasn’t that he didn’t understand or trust our culture. He didn’t like it.

During one critical conversation, the staff member said reflectively, “You know… I think I would just rather work in a place where I can show up, do my work and not be bothered with too much interaction with other people if I don’t feel like it.”

“Fair enough,” I said, “But you can’t do that here.”

Mind you, this staff member did great work when it was something he could do alone. He was honest and hardworking. We valued all of these things.

However, the people-part of our culture was just as important as excelling at tasks, and it wasn’t optional.

With some relief, this staff member asked if we would help him with a plan to leave. For the next several months we gave him ample flextime to attend interviews. He even happily trained his replacement; also giving them a fair and honest heads-up on what to expect from the culture.

There were no hard feelings and no drama. We wrote him some great references. We even asked if he’d participate in a “goodbye circle,” which we try do for all staff when they leave. Each colleague shared something that they valued and would miss about him. He thanked others who had supported him, including the leaders with whom he’d struggled at times and then helped him find another job.

Culture is a powerful thing. It’s also delicate. That is why occasionally it's time to choose... grow or go.