First and foremost, as a leader, when you respond to someone’s concerns, objections, or skepticism with something like, “If you don’t like it, leave,” it is an indication that you are complacent and on a race to the bottom. The implication is that you are fine with your organization being shitty because you assume it’s even shittier elsewhere. Not a great attitude to project. But there is something deeper and more complex at play when people use passive aggressive ultimatums like this.
In a command and control culture there is a tendency to lean heavily on binary determination—you’ve got two choices: my way or the highway. Leaders with an authoritarian bent like this approach because it’s simple. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things and the wrong way is not an option. In this environment, leaders build an arsenal of hard and fast rules intended to give clear direction to the team. There is no room for nuance or discussion. The rules are black and white.
In organizations like this, you hear a lot of phrases like “Zero-tolerance policy,” “We don’t need an exit strategy,” “That’s just the way it is,” “Just hit your numbers,” “We don’t want excuses, we want results,” and of course, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Leaders respond to anyone pushing back or questioning decisions by pushing back even harder, which escalates quickly. It creates an environment where shouting and hot tempers are the norm. People spend way more time bickering than getting and real work done.
There is no attempt, in these situations, to reason with other parties or consider alternatives because that would undermine the very core of the unyielding philosophy. It is a system that we see working hand-in-hand with a high reliance on positional power. That’s not a coincidence. There are professions where unfaltering respect for positions of authority and rigid rules are a necessity under certain circumstances—where, in an emergency situation or crisis, explicit direction must be met with immediate action, not deliberation and lengthy contemplation.
The assumption is that because that hard-line system works in the most dire and desperate of situations, it’s bound to work in scenarios when the outcomes are not so life-threatening. If it worked on the battlefield, it’ll sure as hell work on the loading dock. But that’s faulty logic.
When leaders say things like “If you don’t like it, leave,” what they are doing is trying to manufacture a command and control environment where it does not apply.
Just because a 40-ton excavator may have worked well on The Big Dig, that doesn’t mean you should use it to aerate a putting green. Leadership isn’t generalized. There isn’t a big umbrella leadership that if mastered will allow you to practice leadership in any other area underneath it. It’s not a league, class, or a seed system like sports where qualifying at one level means you are good enough to play anywhere below it as well. The president of a country may not necessarily be a good little league coach. A great football coach (for the love of God) may not be the best resource for learning about leading a business. Leadership is extraordinarily nuanced, and the right principles and tools must be applied at the right time and under the right circumstances.
When leaders say things like “If you don’t like it, leave,” what they are doing is trying to manufacture a command and control environment where it does not apply. They want their environment to be a place where their decisions are not questioned and their authority is absolute. But the circumstances where command and control is the most effective approach are rare. As much as possible, you actually want to avoid desperate situations where people don’t have time to think critically and consider alternatives.
Trying to impose draconian rules whole-cloth on an organization’s culture destroys trust, will, autonomy, critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, and commitment. It makes the organization weak and stagnant. Readily resorting to threats and ultimatums are the acts of a leader whose only tool is a sledge hammer.
I don’t want to offend leaders who have or do employ this “love it or leave it” tactic, because I understand the tendency. People who complain about everything without understanding all the variables or reasons for decisions are frustrating. Certainly there are times when a leader needs to have a thoughtful conversation with someone about finding work elsewhere, but that’s not what “If you don’t like it, leave” is about. That hollow response is destructive enough that it’s important to be blunt. “If you don’t like it, leave” and directives like it, are the hallmark of a leader who has only a shallow understanding of what it means to be a leader. It is lazy, offensive, and cruel. It demonstrates a leader’s unwillingness to listen or develop people, which is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of being a leader. Ironically, because those kinds of statements are intended to project an image of tough leadership, they are in fact a surrender and admission of defeat. It broadcasts your impotence.
Telling someone to leave if they don’t like it is a dodge.
If someone isn’t working out on the team or in the organization then take control of the situation—be a leader. Either develop them or transition them out. You’re the one who is supposed to take charge. Telling someone to leave if they don’t like it is a dodge. When you say something like that, it is clear that you are hoping the problem will take care of itself so you don’t have to do what you’re supposed to do.
Now, does that mean there should be no hard and fast rules or no zero-tolerance policies? On the contrary. There is a place for getting rid of any grey area and explicitly prohibiting certain behavior. In fact, that’s precisely why it’s important that leaders don’t go to an extreme for every policy and issue. Doing so will make it impossible to distinguish levels of gravity on what is condoned and condemned. For example, if you have a zero-tolerance policy on tardiness, how do you ramp up the seriousness for harassment and racism?
In the heat of the moment, people will say things that are unfair. When we don’t seem to be getting through to someone, we look for an easy exit. “If you don’t like it, leave,” may seem to fit the bill when your patience is exhausted, but language matters. As leaders, we are always being examined and what we say is always being dissected. Be careful and considerate about the words you choose.