Should I Stay or Should I Go?
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Should I Stay or Should I Go? by Kevin McManus

First Published in Industrial Engineer Magazine July 2002

One I think that it finally safe to say that the notion of staying with one company for one's entire work career is a thing of the past. I can remember when it was honorable to be considered a ‘company man'. Now, instead of talking about the average number of jobs a person will have in their career, we are focusing on the number of careers a person will have in their lifetime (the current average is around seven).

The readership of this webpage ranges from people who are just entering the workforce to those who are considering leaving it for good. A majority of these readers however are currently employed and plan to stay that way for a number of years. At times, when things may not go just like we would like them to go, we might be tempted to start thinking “Is this the right job for me?” We also might feel like we are stagnating in our current job, and in turn desire something more challenging. In either case, both the individual and the organization need to consider the magnitude of the question “Should I stay or should I go?”

Around ten years ago, the person that I would later come to regard as one of my ‘best bosses' taught me the three questions. I was dissatisfied with the constraints that our corporation was placing on our local plant efforts to improve. Don essentially told me that I had three options – live with it, change it, or leave. Since that point in time, whenever I feel job dissatisfaction creeping into my mind, I quickly run through these three questions to help gauge the magnitude of my discontent.

Choosing to live with a minor dissatisfier, let alone a major one, often runs counter to one's continuous improvement mindset. At the same time, as the work – life balance becomes more of a focus in the coming years, people will become more willing to accept a job that is relatively less challenging or contains some less than desirable features if it affords them the time to spend doing more things away from work. Choosing to live with problems is becoming a more acceptable option.

Changing systems to eliminate or minimize dissatisfiers is always the preferred option, but it is not always the most practical option. Some problems are simply out of your control. Others may require making time or financial investments that the organization has chosen to spend elsewhere. It is true that you can change organizations from the ‘inside out' by focusing on your own circle of influence, but this approach make take more time then you are willing to invest or wait on.

Leaving is always an option, but it is disruptive, especially if you have a family. The primary downside of leaving however is that you are very likely to find the same problems elsewhere. Organizational cultures are powerful things, and in general, they are formed from the same set of genetic business material, especially in this country. The systems that we use to lead, communicate, compensate, evaluate, and improve our companies are very similar, just as the human behaviors that drive their design and execution are. In turn, the results we get from them are also similar.

Many people stay with a company they really don't like working for simply because they have failed to acquire the skills that really make them marketable. This is especially true for relatively older white collar employees, who have often failed to keep their computer skills up to-date. Organizations in turn are also becoming stratified into two layers -- a very diverse, technology-savvy hourly staff and a more homogenous, non-digital management staff. Dissatisfaction levels may not be that different between the two groups, but the dissatisfiers themselves are, as is the desire to pick one of the three choices over the others.

World class organizations seek to identify potential causes of employee dissatisfaction at the moment when an employee first begins to think about leaving the company. Recent data indicates that on average, 6% of your people have actively searched for a job in the past three months. A greater percentage of them are probably thinking about doing so. What will the true costs of replacing these people be? Are there changes that you can make to help retain them, or are the systems that are causing most of the dissatisfaction largely out of your control?

If we fail to significantly modify the systems we use to obtain human performance results, we will only see turnover rise in the coming years. At the same time, if we reduce turnover but fail to consistently enhance the skill sets of those people we retain, we will find that our workforce will lose any competitive advantage it might have from a knowledge perspective. Perhaps one's decision to stay or go should primarily be based on the rate at which the organization is gaining intelligence over time.

You can't run from your problems, just as everything cannot be fixed all at once. Some things simply cannot be changed given the financial or time constraints that exist. Nice thoughts, but are they really that much comfort when you have just watched another one of your best new hires turn in their two week notice? The key lies in putting your challenges in perspective – which ones can you really impact, and which ones have to be ignored or otherwise adjusted to?

The three choices apply to all of us, and each of us has the same ability to pick among them. Will you choose to live with your problems, change the systems that are causing them, or leave them behind, with the hope being that you find another job where they do not exist? If you are responsible for leading others, will you work to create an environment that is conducive to retaining your best people, or will you instead focus on managing around the turnover? In either case, the choice you make whenever you seek to answer the question “Should I stay or should I go?” will have a significant impact on the directions your life chooses to take.

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