The Alamo Dilemma
Sometimes work is a joy. Sometimes we get to work with people we love. Sometimes projects are engaging, exciting and meaningful. Progress seems effortless. Sometimes we even wonder how we got so lucky as to get paid to do something this fun.
But then, sometimes work is a struggle, and we are confronted by intractable problems that can’t be solved or even managed. Since most of us trained as engineers, we’re steeped in the disciplines of problem solving, and we like to think that every problem has a solution. Given infinite time and money, we think we can solve anything. Unfortunately, it just ain’t so. Some problems are battles that we are doomed to lose.
In my experience, there are two sources of constraints that make situations intractable. The easiest ones to accept emotionally are those that are just the result of circumstance. Reality has a way of dictating what’s possible and what’s not. Technical constraints, legacy technology, economic pressures, competitive positioning and regulatory requirements can make things difficult.
The hardest constraints to deal with are political. Sometimes the boss is the obstacle, or the boss’s boss, or even the boss’s boss’s boss. There’s something they want or some element of reality that they can’t handle that compels them to place requirements on us that can’t be met.
When you’re faced with the no-win situation, you have only a few options:
2. Exit the organization.
3. Fight on, knowing that you’re going to lose in the end anyway.
Surrendering seems the most common response. Offices are filled with the living dead who have given up — people who have long since stopped caring about anything. They drag themselves to work each day, passionless, sticking around only because of inertia and the paycheck.
As you can probably tell, I’m not a big fan of this option. When faced with a losing battle, passivity is rarely good for either the company or the employees. It’s demoralizing. And for the individual, pretending to work is actually more exhausting and emotionally draining than working.
Another option, exiting the organization, can take many forms. The simplest is to quit. Just leave. If a person is faced with an impossible situation, there’s nothing stopping him from moving on, other than the need for income. But for most people in this industry, finding another job, while inconvenient, isn’t impossible.
But the exit need not be so drastic. In all but the smallest organizations, there are opportunities for internal transfer. If one boss becomes impossible to work with, there are others to look to.
If the impossible situation is one in which you face an ethical or legal quandary, exiting can be an especially good option. The principled quit can be quite liberating. While some might think of this as “cut and run,” it’s not necessarily so. In fact, many times, a key person’s quitting becomes the wake-up call and ultimately the catalyst for changing the impossible situation into a more tenable one.
And finally, there is the option of fighting on, knowing that you’ll probably lose in the end. This one happens most rarely, but it’s the basis of much of our popular culture. Movie heroes frequently chase impossible dreams in the face of overwhelming odds and succeed more often than not. But I’ve observed that in real life, when someone thinks he’s going to lose some political battle at work, he’s generally right.
Some may say that fighting on is a stupid option that only hurts the person who chooses to engage in it. Is it ever worth the trouble? I’d say yes.
There are occasions when it’s a good choice:
1. The cause is important. When the stakes are high, fighting tough odds can be worth the risk.
2. Staying sends a positive message to the rest of the staff. When leaving may demoralize an entire department or discourage their persistence, staying on may be the right option.
3. There’s something important to learn. An opportunity for personal growth can be worth absorbing a fair amount of pain.
4. Time may transform the impossible into the possible. If waiting may remove the constraint, or the person imposing it, then it may be worth it.
When you’re faced with a no-win situation, you do have options. It’s important to consider them carefully rather than letting the current of life carry you down the river of misery.
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