Lean In or Move On? What to Consider When Work Becomes Challenging

Sometimes walking away is the best choice a woman can make for her career.  How do you know when to stay and when to go? 

After years in the work world, in many different roles, I’ve come to the conclusion that struggling to fit into a company culture that doesn’t feel right isn’t worth it, frankly.

I realize this goes against the grain of the latest conventional wisdom.  The ideas espoused in the national conversation about women in the workplace, inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, encourage women to battle their inclination to ‘lean back’ in an uncomfortable work culture.  “Don’t leave before you leave,” is one of the popular maxims.

There is value in that approach in the right circumstances.  Early in my career, it was the kind of advice I needed to hear.

Later, as I acquired more years of experience, there were times when I ‘leaned in” for months or years in a challenging role.  Even when it became clear that the effort was having no discernible impact in either my day-to-day experience or my long-term professional development.  I was so focused on ‘leaning in’, in fact, that I forgot to ask “what’s in it for me?” (aside from the paycheck, of course). 

In those instances, I’d have been better advised to ‘lean back,' not give so much, even walk away.

Eventually, it’s what I did.  I found myself in a role that, on paper, seemed ideal, but in reality, wasn’t a good fit for my values or goals.  Rather than change myself to fit a corporate culture where I consistently felt like a fish out of water, I decided I’d rather step aside.

Of course, I don’t advise walking away lightly.  This is where experience can make all the difference. Years in the trenches gave me the ability to gauge the question of ‘should I stay or should I go?” from a more discerning and pragmatic perspective.

But I also believe that there is a benefit in always keeping the option on the table, regardless of your current work situation.

It’s freeing, because if you determine that your workplace challenges are worth fixing and can be fixed, your inclination to “lean in” comes more naturally.  You’re there, leaning in, because you want to be and because you know it will be beneficial to you and your career.

If you determine it’s not ‘fixable’, it clears the field for other opportunities.  It’s a lot like relationships.  As our mothers told us, ‘You can’t meet Mr. Right if you’re clinging to Mr. Wrong.’

That’s certainly what happened in my situation.  When I walked away, I cleared the field.  In that cleared space, I articulated my vision of my ideal next step.  I considered what kind of work I wanted to do, the kind of colleagues I wanted to do that work with, the audience I wanted to serve, and how my work would fit in with the other, equally important parts of my life.

In the end, I’m so glad I took the leap.  If I hadn’t walked away, I would have missed out on the most professionally rewarding experience of my career so far – the one I’m immersed in right now.

I realize that, for many women, it’s not always so simple.  Not everyone has the luxury of leaving a job they don’t like, and in some cases the answer isn’t black or white.  But even in those instances, keeping the idea on the table is still a useful tool.  It brings an attitude of empowerment to your internal vision of yourself in the workplace, and there can never be a downside to that.

Join the Conversation

What about you? What are your thoughts on walking away vs. leaning in? 

Have you ever struggled with a choice between trying to change a workplace culture and moving on to find a better fit?   How did you make your decision?  How do you feel about the outcome?