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‘I Want to Quit, But My Project Will Die If I Leave’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I am a creative team lead at a floundering start-up. This is the worst-run workplace I have ever seen. There are two people above me, our CEO “Lorna” and her general manager, “Ignatius.” Lorna is not a bad person, but she has a tendency to not tell the whole truth and to try to intimidate her way out of difficult conversations through dramatics. She leaves much of her work to Ignatius, who is very unprofessional, highly defensive, and, unfortunately, someone about whom Lorna will hear no evil.

In the time I’ve worked here, ever since Ignatius decided to take charge of our project, I’ve been publicly mocked and shamed, used as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong, and generally treated poorly. It came to a head last week when, after doing an editing task Ignatius had asked me to do (and which is well within my purview as creative lead), I received immediate and hostile email backlash in furious run-on sentences, including bold-faced lies. This went to Lorna as well. 

The very next day, my hours were cut by 75 percent. I am told this is temporary. Lorna also told me out of nowhere that I must be pregnant, clarified only by a muttered, “Oh, I thought it might be hormones.” I can only extrapolate that she means my attitude, although my comments [in that same email thread] included a lot of positive feedback, the word please, and genuine suggestions, whereas Ignatius told several obvious fibs (which I’ve already disproved with screenshots), attacked me personally, and refused to make simple content edits he was responsible for.

To add to this chaos, we’re onboarding new team members, meaning that I am often in the position of having to apologize for or otherwise explain away Ignatius’s mistakes. People are in paranoid meltdowns, not understanding if they have a  job or not, because Ignatius (the person responsible for that) tells them a hundred different things or just ignores them. To add insult to injury, I found out new hires in lower-level positions now make more than I do. By the way, I haven’t had a contract for over six months.

I’ve been unable to leave due to the flexibility of the schedule and my financial needs, but I am now at a point where I am ready to disengage. It seems like the perfect time. But if I leave this incredibly detailed project that cost me friendships, physical and emotional health, and much of my family stability, and Ignatius takes over, it’s dead. It’s gone. It will never happen. I carried this project through the coronavirus with a dispersed team as a first-time manager working through severe illness, and I want it to succeed. I want to be done, but I don’t want this time to have been a waste. How do I move on?

Oh my goodness, leave.

You’re being abused and lied about, your hours have been cut by 75 percent (!) as retribution for an imagined offense, your co-workers are having paranoid meltdowns, the organization is horribly run, and staying there has already damaged your friendships and your health.

I understand you want to see the project through, but this is not a reasonable price to pay.

Frankly, even if the organization were run flawlessly and none of these problems existed, you still should leave if you wanted to leave. This is the nature of work: These are business relationships, and you cannot have such deep personal ties to your employer’s projects that you prioritize them above your own interests. That’s not to say that you should never get invested in your work or care deeply about it. But don’t lose sight of the fact that you are selling your labor for money, and when it no longer makes sense to do that, walk away without guilt. (Just as if it no longer made business sense for your organization to employ you, they would part ways with you.)

But this goes well beyond that. This isn’t a functional organization that simply no longer aligns with your professional goals. This is an organization that mistreats, even abuses, you. This is an organization in chaos.

I get that you’ve already invested so much in making your project work and if you walk away now, it might feel like it was all for nothing. But you’ve already invested that time and energy no matter what you do now — they’re sunk costs, as economists would say. Those costs remain the same no matter what you do now. What about the future costs you would incur by staying?

Put another way: Does it truly make sense to stay for more abuse — and presumably more impact to your health and your relationships — in the hopes of making it all mean something? When it comes down to it, I doubt that you value your project over your health or your friends and family, so don’t make decisions as if you do. And really, even if you stayed and finished your project, is this particular organization well-positioned to do whatever would come next with that work — promote it, maintain it for future years, and so forth?

Dysfunctional organizations have a way of warping your thinking. After working in one for long enough, practices that you’d otherwise recognize as unacceptable can start to feel normal, or at least not that bad. You end up accepting things that you shouldn’t tolerate at all (like being yelled at or lied about!) and sometimes even questioning whether you’re the problem. Even worse, that warped sense of normal can follow you into your next job, where it can cause you real problems once you’re in a more functional environment. (For example, if your old job berated you for small mistakes, you might stop being forthcoming about errors — and if you do that at a new job with better management, that’s unlikely to go well.)

Just like with other forms of dysfunctional or abusive relationships, when you’ve stayed at a toxic job for a long time, it can be hard to see that you really do need to get out — and it can be easy for your brain to come up with reasons you should stay.

You weren’t in a position to leave before, but now you are. Please don’t let that opportunity go by.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I Want to Quit, But My Project Will Die If I Leave’