The Importance of Not Burning Bridges

One of my favorite bands from back home in Rhode Island, Zox, has a great song called “Bridge Burning” that I’ve listened to countless times in the last decade. One of the best lyrics from that song, in my humble opinion, goes as follows:

Our hands are stained the color of the sky above our heads,
With things we haven’t done
And words we haven’t said.
Still the pain will come as some surprise
When you burn a bridge, the smoke gets in your eyes.

The last line always resonated with me in many areas of my life, but most certainly when it comes to professionalism. Lately I’ve been witness to many incidents professionally surrounding this, and I’ll admit that I’ve been floored by how easily people are willing to burn bridges.

As a young professional, I started my career in an industry and a role that turned out not to be for me (see: “Why It’s Okay to Hate Your Day Job”). While I had my moments of difficulty and frustration, I always tried to maintain my professionalism while standing up for myself and the things I believe in (fairness, integrity, professionalism, etc.). I left on my own terms, and my coworkers were kind enough to throw me a farewell happy hour on my way out. This was important to me, because as miserable as I was, I didn’t want to worry about having negative interactions with these people after I left in case I ran into them later in my career.

In the course of my career since then, I have worked with people across industries and companies who have acted without thought or consideration for what the future holds for them. I’ve met people who have been unhappy with their companies, bosses, or teams, so they’ve thought nothing of quitting without notice or dropping a project without consideration for how that immediately affects those around them (hint: it affects more than just your boss or the coworkers you don’t like). This is only one example, but probably the best example to point to when trying to learning about any individual. When taking this approach, it’s assumed that they’re hurting the people directly who wronged them, when the reality is that they’re really just hurting themselves in the long run. If you choose to make this choice, not only will you have immediately ended those relationships, leaving everyone with a bad taste in their mouths, but you’ll leave a ripple of negativity in the wake of your destruction. The people you’ve worked for will not be motivated to say kind things about you, refer you business, or anything. Worse yet, down the line you may run into one of those people in your future and realize they have decision-making power that affects you. To me, these things just don’t seem worth it.

This all may seem to be very common sense advice, but in my experience, as Shawn Achor says, “common sense is not common action.” I watch people consistently burning bridges without thought to the effects it will have on their lives and careers. And don’t get me wrong–there are certainly situations which call for honest confrontations to address legitimate issues, which do have the potential to burn bridges whether that’s your intention or not. I have experienced some of these situations as well, and I don’t have many regrets there. But when you know there is little hope of resolution, sometimes it’s best to just learn from the experience and move on. (A little self-reflection on what you could’ve done better on your end never hurts either). As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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