“Take This Job And…”

How many times have each of us walked out of a bad meeting with our boss and dreamt of going full throated Johnny Paycheck and telling them what they could do with this job?

If you work long enough, I think it’s inevitable.  Everyone has a story or two to share.  Complaining about bad bosses is a form of social currency among colleagues.  Some of us even post about it on social media. 

I know it’s happened to me.  I’ve written before about what it was like to work for a really challenging boss early in my career.  But I’ve had bad meetings that provoked thoughts of leaving with bosses who I otherwise very much respected. 

The much chronicled “Great Resignation” can be viewed as a collective embrace of the “take this job and shove it” mentality.  We’ve read how the pandemic awakened in people a desire for more freedom, greater balance, and a simpler way of life.  But no doubt getting away from bad bosses is a contributing factor.

Before we hire Johnny Paycheck to be our career coach however, I’d like to offer a different point of view.  As tempting as it may be to get away from what we perceive to be a tough situation with our manager, doing so could be a mistake in the long run.  Here’s the truth too often unspoken these days:  a tough boss who challenges you, makes you question your assumptions, and takes you out of your comfort zone will make you stronger and better.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that being tough and challenging is far different from being abusive, demeaning or insulting.  There is no justification for managers who attack a subordinate’s personal dignity.

Having said that, sometimes direct, to-the-point feedback on our work, especially if it’s off the mark, is exactly what we need to hear.  Feedback is the fuel that grows our careers.  We need it as much as plants need sunlight and water.  Without it our careers will stagnate and die.

All of us want to be nurtured and empowered, but growth and change in any part of our lives does not come without some measure of pain and sacrifice.  Our transition from children to adults hurts sometimes, both physically and emotionally.  Growing muscle and improving our endurance through fitness training requires enduring short-term pain for long term gain.  Steel must be forged in fire…I could go on.  The metaphors on this topic are so well worn that they have become cliché.  But the truth behind them is no less real.

I’d argue no feedback is more powerful or needed than the type we least want to hear.  The best bosses are the ones who understand that and won’t shy away from telling us what they think.  Yes, sometimes that message can be delivered in a fashion we don’t like.  That can be tough, at times even unfair, but if we don’t get past the emotional bruising in the moment, we rob ourselves of an invaluable growth opportunity. 

Often that meeting that makes you want to quit could end up being the one that unlocks an insight or lesson about yourself that supercharges your growth.  The trick is you may not know it right away.  If you follow Johnny Paycheck’s advice and quit you may miss out on something you really need.

But what if you are the boss?  I know those of us who are managers like to think that we have the undying respect and devotion of our employees.  None of us could imagine ever being the type of boss who would drive someone to thoughts of quitting.

It’s possible that your people feel that you’re an exceptional leader who never fails to say the right thing, in the right way, in the right moment that motivates and inspires your team to get to the next level.  Yes, that’s possible, but I doubt it.

No matter how accomplished and skilled you are, all of us are human.  We have our good days and bad days.  Just like employees can miss the mark on a project, all bosses at one time or another fail to bring their best selves when their employees really need it.  I know I have at times.

Bad days and moments are forgivable, especially if one is willing to own them.  What’s harder to forgive is the boss who doesn’t ever bother to give the employee the tough feedback on a project or how they handled a situation.  That’s an indication that they are either scared or don’t care, neither are desirable qualities in a leader.  I’ll take the tough boss over an indifferent or frightened one every time.

As I look back over my career, I don’t remember many of the details of the bad meetings.  If someone asked me to write a summary or reenact a tough meeting with a past boss, I couldn’t do it.  Who said what to whom or how a message was delivered have faded with time.  What I do remember is in every instance, even those when a boss crossed the line in how they delivered feedback, I learned something that helped me down the line.  What’s stuck with me is how I grew from the experience. 

Also, and this is really important, in those instances once I calmed down and got past the “I’m quitting tomorrow” mindset I also realized that the meeting didn’t just go poorly because my boss was being a jerk.  It went wrong because I didn’t deliver my best work. I may not have liked the messenger in that moment, but I needed to hear the message.  Whether we are the boss or the employee in those situations we must take responsibility for our work.  Failure to acknowledge our own missteps can be a warning sign of excessive pride or arrogance.  Too heavy a dose of either can be devastating to our careers.

I tip my hat to Johnny Paycheck and will continue to turn up the volume when “Take This Job and Shove It” comes on.  It’s great country music, but lousy career advice.  In the end if you don’t seek out managers who tell you what you need to hear, or as a boss you shy away from giving tough feedback, your career won’t amount to all that much.

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