Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 7, 2022
by Neil Senturia
Wait a minute, maybe I got carried away. What if the U-T graciously accepts my resignation and in an additional show of good spirit, offers to pack me a tuna fish sandwich and a bag of chips as they show me the way out the door?
What is going on with this apparently broad-based desire to quit? Quitting to do what, to go where? All of a sudden, the workers are in revolt, they can’t get through the revolving door fast enough. Emma Goldberg at the New York Times describes this as “turnover contagion.” In other words, when you see your co-worker hang up her cleats and make for the door, you are inclined to follow suit.
Goldberg says, “quitting begets quitting.” In a recent poll of 21,000 LinkedIn members, 59 percent said that seeing a colleague bail encouraged them to consider pulling the ripcord as well. Don’t get me started on lemmings walking off a cliff.
When it comes to heading for the exits, “peer effects are particularly potent.” Goldberg describes the classic case where the employee saves up six months in expenses, tells her boss to stuff it, bails out and then goes to live with her parents, while she tries to find herself and decide what she is going to do next, by surfing social media. The blind leading the blind?
In my personal case, many of my peers are retired. I am asked frequently if I am going to do the same. I get that look; I feel the need to justify, to affirm that I can afford to etc., but for the record, once and for all, my answer is that I intend to be making my last deals from the coffin. Just put in a cellphone with extended battery life.
Now, in fairness, there is a proper and deep desire to find work-life balance, to be at a company that values your contribution, that treats you with respect and pays you a proper wage. Those are powerful reasons to consider a transition when those are not in play.
But that doesn’t fully explain the 5 million people who quit their job in December. And while I celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit, as my co-columnist, Phil Blair, has often said, it is always easier to get a new “job” while you still have a job, even if that new job is your individual “startup.”
All right, you’ve walked the plank and are now actively engaged in your new startup. Remember you did not love the previous management, and you are determined to do it better. You decide to go with flat, equal, egalitarian, no titles, all for one and one for all. And the winner is — that doesn’t work.
Wharton professor Ronnie Lee has done a study about hierarchy in startups and says, “Startups with flat organizational structures often fail.” The initial thrill of the bean bag and the ramen quickly needs to give way to “management structure.” He says that when you pass about 15 to 20 employees, then it is time to create order out of impending chaos.
Another major caution: “Male employees accumulate influence in a power vacuum, leaving female and minority employees with lesser contributions.” This flies directly in the face of the proven truth about diversity and women leaders, who clearly make a company better. The “bro” default is dangerous to a company’s economic health. Lee found that startups that advertise a flat structure, thinking that they are sending a message about work-life balance, actually got 25 percent fewer female applicants.
As the company grows, the CEO will need to limit “unfettered creativity” in the service of delivering an actual product. With growth will come personal conflicts, and it is likely that some of the earliest employees who followed you into the wilderness will start to leave now that there is more process and structure. They are the ones who need the challenge of a new startup, the next Wild West adventure.
And so, in the end, the grass is not always greener, and someone still needs to cut the lawn. And even if you do go home again for a while (with apologies to Thomas Wolfe), your mother will still ask you to take out the trash and do the dishes.
Rule No. 699
“Don’t fence me in.”
— The Andrews Sisters