BURNING BRIDGES EFFECTIVELY
Todd Dewett | October 1, 2020
We’ve been told that burning bridges is not wise. This refers to irreparably harming key relationships and opportunities as a part of a rough and hasty exit from a difficult situation. This can be accomplished by unexpectedly abandoning your responsibilities, intentionally damaging work products, treating key people with whom you work negatively and harshly, etc. Burning bridges is not smart and to be avoided – but not always.
It depends on how you define the action. If you mean to sever with no regard to ramifications, driven by only anger, spite, and a desire to simply end the situation – that’s never useful. It only succeeds in creating a painful closure. If, however, you mean to send a strong message in response to an unacceptable situation, one intended to jolt and cause clear change – that can be quite necessary on occasion.
So, it’s usually wise to avoid burning bridges, but sometimes, you need to light the match. It might be time to burn the bridge to the old version of a situation in order to enact a new reality.
For example, when you’ve been lied to more than once, when promises aren’t being kept, when others say unkind things that damage your credibility, when others engage questionable or unethical behaviors that may taint you, or just when someone is too consistently negative and never really feeds your soul – it might be time to light up.
To burn a bridge under these conditions is to state that there is an issue, to clearly own your assessment of the situation, and to be critical in an unequivocal manner. You must care far more about conveying the need for change as opposed to worrying about how your actions might cause damage. This allows you to strongly signal your intention to no longer accept the situation unless new rules apply.
To light the blaze effectively, be prepared to make your case: be brief, know the facts, be explicit, and bring the data to back up your view if possible. Know that by burning this bridge, things will now change. Your relationship or situation might be worse, not better. You can’t perfectly predict how others will react. So, think about the potential reactions so you can consider contingencies. For example, you may want to speak to others before or after you light the match to make sure you don’t burn unnecessary bridges, and you should be prepared to engage the job market if this action puts your employment in jeopardy.
It would be lovely if people were so kind, supportive, and service-minded that we never had to think about burning bridges, but that’s not realistic. People have odd personalities, competing agendas, and moments of bad judgment. Some of them are persistently negative and harmful to your progress. This is obvious, but what to do with this reality is less clear. Sometimes you can engage people creatively and communicate your way towards a more productive relationship. Other times, that investment is no longer paying off and it’s time to light the match.