Quitting: Always an option to consider
Quitting anything can be very challenging for many of us. Obviously there are issues of financial security, health insurance coverage (in the US) and future career prospects that have to be addressed if quitting a team requires quitting a job, and those practicalities are important. However, even in situations where livelihoods are not at stake, many people think of quitting as a personal failure and consequently don’t even consider it as an option unless desperate. In a team context, it can feel particularly difficult to quit because then you will feel like you are letting down the team or leaving your fellow team members in the lurch. Whatever the reasons, quitting is a very context-dependent decision that only you can make. The purpose of this article is not to persuade you that quitting is always the answer in specific situations but rather to normalize at least considering quitting. Making a good decision about your continued involvement in a team is difficult without carefully considering all of the options, and quitting is always an option that should be considered, however difficult and complicated that might be to choose
If quitting has occurred to you at all while working in a team, then probably it is a good option to consider carefully, as well as why that thought occurred to you. Sometimes a variety of factors combine to make a team working context difficult or toxic, and it can be useful to pick these factors apart to see if some or all of them can be addressed, perhaps as described in other parts of this series (for example, in parts three, six and seven). However, there are some red flags that may arise making quitting a particularly important option to consider, including repeated failures to achieve conflict resolution, if your personal objectives are always ignored in favor of team cohesion and/or project objectives, and if communication about project processes requires huge amounts of time and energy throughout the life of the project.
Probably one of the most common reasons behind why someone will quit a team is the inability, either by them or the team as a whole, to resolve conflicts. A particular red flag is when attempts at conflict resolution have been made, perhaps for multiple different conflicts, and they either are not resolved or are never resolved in a way that is respectful to you, as a conflict participant. This is particularly important if the conflict arises from someone who is displaying repeated and unchecked toxic behavior towards you. In those instances, using conflict resolution strategies yourself (like those described in part seven) may be an option, but sometimes even using those strategies can feel too risky and simply enduring the toxicity feels like the only option. Those instances are the times when considering quitting is especially important, although only you can make the decision of what the best choice is given all of the context.
Another red flag to watch out for is if your personal and professional objectives are not incorporated into the team environment at any point. Teams work best when the individuals involved feel valued on an individual level as well as part of the team, and supportive team environments should incorporate all of the types of objectives (as described in part one) as important to the success of the team. At the very least, your supervisor or team lead should be aware of your personal and professional objectives, and take these into account when supervising your place in the team. If team cohesion and/or project objectives are the only types of objectives that are valued, then it may be a good time to evaluate if your personal and professional objectives are being furthered by participating in this team. If the answer is no, and especially if it has been no for a while, then quitting is definitely an option that should be considered.
Sometimes, quitting a team before it becomes a toxic work environment is an excellent option. Communication about the key elements of the team (as described in part two), is something that should take a fair amount of time and energy on the part of all team members when the team is first formed, or perhaps when new team members join. However, if you are spending large amounts of time and energy discussing things like roles and responsibilities, project timelines and products, conflict resolution processes, and technical processes throughout the life of the project, then this may be a red flag of a dysfunctional team. Frequent conflicts and inability to make decisions about the basic functioning of the team are often symptoms of underlying issues, such as power struggles between team members. Dysfunctional teams are not automatically toxic environments for everyone, but they are often likely to become that way, particularly for the team members with the least power. Quitting a team before it becomes a toxic environment, if there are red flags that it is headed in that direction, is always an option that should at least be considered. Saving yourself from experiencing work-related trauma is a worthy goal for anyone, although of course only you can make the decision if this is the best choice given all of the context.
The red flags described here are by no means an exhaustive list of scenarios when quitting a team might be the best option to consider. Each team environment is different and individuals all have different needs and priorities, so only you can truly know what circumstances will lead you to consider quitting as an option. Personally, I have felt better about the decision to quit a team when I know that I tried to understand the reasons that I found the team environment difficult or toxic and attempted to do what I could to address them. However, this often requires a lot of energy and frequently a significant amount of risk, and there have been times when I decided that quitting without trying to address the issues was the best option for me in that circumstance. Whatever your circumstances, the important thing is to know that quitting a team is always an option available to you, especially if you are feeling like enduring a toxic environment is your only choice. Even if there are logistical or practical reasons that make you decide that quitting isn’t the best option at that time, considering it as an option can help to clarify what would need to change in order for quitting to be an option (saving a certain number of months’ worth of expenses, for example), and you can then start working towards that as a goal.