What’s Wrong with Burning a Few Bridges?


Conventional wisdom tells us to never burn a single bridge in our professional lives because you never know when you might need that relationship again.  I firmly believe that there are going to be circumstances and people who nearly require you to burn the bridge so you will never need to work with those people again.

I’ve been working for the past 35 years and I initially followed conventional wisdom and did whatever it took to part ways on a positive note.  There are times when the reason I was leaving was more than a promotional opportunity, more money, or a shorter commute.  These are all the generally softer ways of giving notice.  They are often spoken in truth, but many times they are used to cover up the real reasons to avoid burning bridges.

As time progressed, I thought it would improve circumstances if I shared the issues that caused me to consider other opportunities, more money or a shorter commute.  I had candid conversations with Human Resources during exit interviews, explaining the challenges with processes and particular personalities that cause concern and issues in the workplace.  I have spent the past 22 years in learning development, so my core was telling me that people can’t improve until they know that there is a performance gap.

Looking back, I would say that each of those times when I was honest and doing what I thought was helpful, I burned a bridge.  I’m not talking about toasting the wood a little; I’m talking about a five-alarm fire, nothing but ashes when I left.  There was no walking back over that puppy after I was finished burning it.  The people I left behind never spoke with me again, and I’m left to wonder if that is really such a bad thing?

Out of the dozen or so people who would sooner slit their throat then say hello to me, I have to be honest doesn’t bother me in the least.  These were folks that the word ethical wasn’t even in their dictionary.  Underhanded, manipulative, rude and down right mean are better descriptors of their personalities.  I hated working for them at the time, and after leaving I felt a rush of relief at never having to work with them again.  Although it was not my intention to burn a bridge with these people, the fact remains that I did, and the primary benefit was to never hear from them again.

When they say we are only separated by about six people from each other at most, (six degrees of separation), it does cause a reduction in referrals and future contacts that might cause these people to question if they should begin a working relationship with you.  Recently I suffered the opposite of that type of disconnect when someone contacted an old manager to find out what kind of training professional I am and what it would be like to work with me.

I know that this must have been this guy’s dream come true to work his magic by telling this new contact what a nightmare I would be to work with.  He said, “Jim is a purist when it comes to training and needs to do everything the right way.  He plays by the rules and Joan of Arc has nothing on him when it comes to ethics.  It makes it challenging to work around him because he is such a goody two shoes.”

Well thanks to these comments, I have a new client that shares my servant leadership style and ethical code.  What my old manager was trying to do was clue in his friend to how difficult it will be to work with a person like me, and at the same time selling the attributes the new client was looking for in a working relationship.

Now I will be the first to admit this situation was a fluke.  Most of the time when you burn a bridge that person will have a negative influence over anyone asking about you, not to mention that they themselves will never work with you again.  When I began consulting 6 years ago I was heart-broken that a particular person wasn’t giving me the time of day or throw me a bone’s worth of business.  At first I struck it up to the fact that he was still angry that I resigned and my replacement was not producing the same results I had.  I had watched this guy lash out at others that left before I did and his vindictive nature was well on display most of the time.  It should have been no surprise to me that I was getting the same cold shoulder, but it did.

This manager and I worked well together and although it was a strained relationship initially, over time I figured out his style and met those needs in my work performance.  He was angry over my leaving because as he said, “I don’t want you to go.”  I had a difficult time explaining why I was being called to strike out on my own and go from a reliable income to complete uncertainty as a self-employed consultant.  While financially it was not the best decision I’ve ever made, it has brought me innumerable benefits I would not have collected if I had remained.

One of these benefits has been the realization that burning a bridge forces you to find another route.  Without the easy ability to rely on old relationships to fund my new consulting business, I was forced to find new relationships early on and not wait until after the well went completely dry.  In some cases caustic people who I hated to work with in past jobs will no longer be a part of my future.  These folks will never again poison my spirit or cause me undo irritation because I need their job or as a client.

While I might have gone along with conventional wisdom in my early working years and left no bridge unburned, I’m glad to look back at a few I burned on purpose and realize that it was for my benefit that I can no longer connect with those people again.

What bridges have you burned in the past that you are glad you did?What bridges are still in place that should have been burned down?What do you think is wrong with burning a few bridges?

[Originally posted at www.linked2leadership.com on 2/17/12]

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