To Lead, or Not to Lead, that is the question

A workplace interpretation of Hamlet‘s soliloquy:Royal-Mail-Stamps-RSC-Hamlet


William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tale of tragedy, incest, betrayal, and masquerade – so really, not that different than most people’s life at work. The good people seem to get snuffed, people get promoted simply because they are in good with or related to the boss, understood covenants between individuals are violated, and people pretend to be something they are not to get into a position of advantage. Is it any wonder then that the word “workplace” can summon a feeling of tragedy?

But hang on, before you think this is a negative spin on company existence, it’s not. This is about choice, empowerment, and self-determination. It’s easy to be a victim. The difficulty is realizing you are CHOOSING your situation. I’m not going to post the soliloquy. If you want to view it, take a look here. My aim is to take Hamlet’s quandary and apply it to that of the modern worker who is unhappy in his current situation and how it is a matter of choice whether we stay or go.

The Story

If you are not familiar with Hamlet, the short of it is this:  Hamlet is the young prince of Denmark whose father is killed. His uncle (the former King’s brother) takes the throne and marries Hamlet’s mother (the queen) mere months after Hamlet’s father’s death. Hamlet learns that his father was killed by his uncle and plunges into depression (the soliloquy is the turning point) and emerges angry and resolute to exact justice on the guilty party.  Hamlet pretends to be crazy as he maneuvers to expose the truth and kill his uncle. I’m not going to give away the rest of the story but to suffice to say, it doesn’t end well for pretty much all of the main characters.

Hopefully, our story has a better ending.

The Quandary

During Hamlet’s depression, he contemplates suicide. This is the crux of the “To Be or Not to be” soliloquy. And while hopefully no one reading this is contemplating suicide as a result of their unfortunate working situation, I am sure many of you have considered quitting at some point or another. Which often feels like the final of most final options. Unlike suicide however, we have a chance to continue on and perhaps lead even better lives.

“The undiscovered country….puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of”

There is comfort in the known. Even when what we know is uncomfortable. The human mind is a self-preservation engine and the blackness of the unknown holds danger that we fear what we cannot manage.

“Thus Conscience does make cowards of us all”

We instead choose to stay in a terrible situation that we know and have learned to “deal with” than explore the unknown. But that is the crux of the question of either being or not being, leading or not leading, thriving or not thriving, being courageous or not – every question has a choice. Even the most simple of closed ended questions has more than one answer – yes or no.

“And thus the Native hue of Resolution is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought, and enterprises of great pitch and moment, with this regard their Currents turn awry, and lose the name of Action…”

We think too much. Our natural sense of resolution and commitment, even in moments of great opportunity, are overturned by our negative thoughts that fill the void of the unknown with some undefeatable monster. These negative thoughts are not based in reason, but it is the emotional response to incomprehensibility that sours our resolve. In the moments of great opportunity, we fail to act because we cannot think through to the other side.

And while Hamlet’s story has a tragic ending, he CHOSE not to kill himself and instead endeavored in an even larger attempt to right those things that were wronged. He CHOSE a difficult path with just as much uncertainty. So even when we think we have only two options, sometimes there is a third or fourth.

It takes courage to do something more than just endure. So if you have been to the edge of quitting and chosen time and time again to stay, are you at least choosing to change something? If you have already contemplated quitting, then facing the unknown has been close to your doorstep. Courage is not about blindly stepping into a dangerous situation, it is about trusting yourself to explore the unknown. Optimism is not believing that everything will turn out great regardless of how you interact in the world, it is about knowing that you have a choice in how you interact with the world and you choose to make things as good as you can for you.

Everything we encounter in any given day is a choice. Do you chose to be a player in your own life or a pawn? Do you chose to trust yourself and explore the unknown? Do you choose to make things as good as you can? Do you choose to lead, or not to lead? That is the question.

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Dave Needham is a leadership coach, speaker, and President of PeakAlignment, Inc. He thrives on building awesome workplace cultures and leaders. Contact Dave Needham if you think your workplace could use more “awesome”.


High Attrition and the Fundamental Attribution Error

I was recently speaking with a friend who noted that the turnover rate at his company was surprisingly high at 26%.  According to him, this was news to everyone as no one had been tracking it, there was just an assumption of good culture since most people seemed happy… at least outwardly.  However, a few departments had seen unusually high turnover, one of them being Human Resources at over 50%.  Now, I would hope this would be cause for alarm by some of the leadership but quite the contrary, many of the senior leaders seemed quite aloof.  My friend had heard them say such things as “they [those that left] just weren’t committed to what we are doing here” and “I’ve lost over half my staff in the past year…I’m trying not to take it personally.”  WHAT!?

I’m going to go in reverse order since the last one seems the most perverse.  According to my friend, this person, a senior HR leader, has lost 5 of his 9 direct reports within the past year.  Does this person not read any studies about why employees say they leave?  For that past 20+ years, the number one reason people leave a job is their boss.  That is not to say the ONLY reason employees leave is because of a bad boss but the law of averages has to catch up to you sooner or later.  I am reminded of a rather cynical quote I saw on, “The only consistent feature of all your dissatisfying relationships is you.”  So how you could possibly NOT take over half your staff leaving, personally?  Now I could open up the flood gates to all the other external reasons why someone might want to leave but that just gets us into the second issue…or the first comment by senior HR leaders above.  The fundamental attribution error.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is a psychological principle that basically says we mistakenly confuse character flaws with situational causes.  It can most notably seen when we make observations about others in comparison to ourselves.  A simple example is: if you get into an accident, you are a careless driver and weren’t paying attention (character). When I get into an accident at that same intersection, the stoplights were messed up and there was ice (situational).  Moreover, we tend to seek external causes to our misfortune rather than looking internally.  It is always because of something else that bad things happen, not because of us.  So because [they] are not committed, they left.  I’m sure it has nothing to do with you. Right.

Here is another disturbing indicator, this company my friend works at, does not do exit interviews. Presumably, because they either don’t want to know why people are leaving, or they DO know why people are leaving and they don’t want it confirmed.  After all, a fair amount of our defensive responses surround protecting ourselves from things we do not want to feel, or be reminded of.  So if I  fear I am a bad boss and I do not want to feel that way, I will think of countless ways to avoid it (such as not asking, attributing turnover to external causes, blaming, rationalizing, etc.)

If you have high turnover, and it is a surprise when it happens, there is a good chance you are not paying attention to how YOU affect your employees.  Sure, there are other reasons, but YOU have control over most of them.  If you really want to know, find a good 360 instrument, ask your employees, and DO something with your exit data.