Resignation at Work

I have been working a lot lately with organizations and, in
particular, with their cultures and attempts to change them. Given my
growing interest in the culture of aging, I have been paying a lot of
attention to what people say about how the ‘retirement’ process works,
particularly in the Public Service and other large bureaucracies. The
gist of what I hear is that people do their darnedest to ‘get away’
from all the bullshit, while still ‘hanging on’ for dear life until
they qualify for their promised pension. I have heard almost no one say
they don’t want to leave as soon as they can, and the sooner, the
better. What a sad comment on the institutional culture when we
consider that these people have given the better part of their lives to
an organization they can’t wait to leave.

second, perhaps sadder observation is how little acknowledgement people
receive when they retire. Close acquaintances chip in for a gift,
friends throw a party, you might get a commemorative pin or a piece of
jewelry, but that’s it. One day you’re juggling emails, phone calls and
meetings to help shape a policy, provide a service or create something
out of nothing, and the next you are on the sidelines, no longer
juggling and wondering what the whole thing was all about anyway. No
formal letters of appreciation, not even a form letter from the head of
the organization. No recognition of the events you missed as your
children were growing up because of work. No accounting for the
thousands of hours of unpaid overtime, unused sick leave, unspent
vacation time. Were you ever really there? Did you make a difference?
It seems as if, like the shifting sands, your contribution is too soon

I have seen this happening up close and personal with a number of
clients and friends. The pattern of insensitivity and indifference to
the individual is pervasive. It would be tragic were it not for the
level of resignation that it engenders. I have challenged my retired
bureaucratic friends to consider mobilizing their friends to take some
responsibility for the system they served for 30 years and, since they
now have nothing to lose, begin a campaign to communicate with the
powers that be to change ‘the way it is’ and offer their support and
vision for how it might be.

Their response is uniformly, “It wouldn’t make any difference, and I just don’t care.”

This is resignation on a grand scale.

In one very large Public Service System, about one third of the
managerial ranks will be retiring in the next 5 years. Not only is that
much experience being lost, but most of their replacements will also be
promoted prematurely and probably advanced several levels. No doubt,
most will be technically competent, but they will lack a lot of the
‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ that comes with age and maturity.

For most large organizations, this issue poses strategic challenges
never faced before. No matter how this challenge is prepared for and
handled, this transition of leadership will be creating the
organization’s future for the next 15 to 20 years. In all likelihood,
these management jobs will be filled with ‘technocrats’. At least, the
people who remain might have the foresight to consider recognizing
those who are leaving in a manner that acknowledges what will be
missing when they are gone.

Resignation is a nasty mood because it is insidious, disguising
itself in offhand comments such as “Nothing’s wrong” and “That’s life”.
It is a great survival strategy, maybe the only effective one when
you’ve spent years banging your head up against the inertia in the
culture with limited or no success. You can only break your pick so
many times before you give up. But if enough people become resigned,
the possibility of getting past the bullshit and actually creating a
culture that has a future that inspires and allows everyone to
contribute is sucked out of the air for everyone. The whole culture
becomes resigned—and that makes creating a vision and leading real
change that much more difficult, if not downright hopeless.

So I want to acknowledge all of you for giving your lives to serving
the public through government organizations or large institutions, for
the dream that had you choose that path for contributing, for the
tenacity to have stuck with it for your career, and, finally, for the
humanity that it takes to keep contributing even when you don’t get
acknowledged and the job seems ‘thankless’.

Thank you.