Not Everything Has to Succeed – Death Marches are Bad and Wrong

Over the course of my career, I’ve seen more than a few bosses who insist that “failure is not an option.” Some of them have been on projects I was involved in. Others have been in charge of projects that I’ve had a view on because they were worked on by friends and colleagues.

These bosses act like the thing they are “in charge” of is the most important thing in the world – more important than your health, work-life balance, and pretty much anything that doesn’t cost them directly.

Funnily enough, those same bosses are usually the ones that raise mortal hell if you try to contact them outside of hours. In fact, they’re generally the first people to remove themselves from the on-call rotation when they get control of the tool that manages it.

I had the displeasure of working on one project with an incredibly unrealistic timeline that was short staffed and depended on an outside third party. When I asked the manager what our backup plan was if the deadline couldn’t be met, he had the audacity to say that he doesn’t make backup plans because, if there’s a backup plan, people won’t try to make the deadline (which can’t be met in the first bloody place).

Instead, he ran everyone into the ground, burned out most of the team, lost most of the team to attrition, and still didn’t meet the deadline. Everyone paid the price for this except him. He was praised as a “strong leader” because he abused everyone around him (which is the exact behavior that the managers above him exhibited).

My experience on that project reinforced a very important lesson that I had forgotten for various reasons – Not every project has to succeed. In fact, it’s sometimes a much much better outcome to simply stand back and let them fail. Don’t try to heroically save a project which is going to cost the health and free time of the people who work on it.

Death marches deserve to fail. They NEED to fail, and they preferably need to fail in such a way that the abusers are the ones left holding the bag. If they don’t fail, it incentivizes the behavior of abusive management practices because it shows that they “obviously” work.

(As an aside, I have a friend who once called out my use of the term “death march” until I pointed out the number of people that I know who have literally suffered heart attacks related to overwork. In one case, the CTO came to the hospital and demanded to know why the person wasn’t studying something programming related instead of resting like his doctor ordered. I wish I was exaggerating.)

If you start to see the signs that a project you’re on is going in this direction or that this behavior is expected of the members of a team, remember that you have options. You don’t have to agree to working yourself into an early grave.

I’d also like to point out that, if you see one death march project, that’s a sign that this is how they run most of their projects. Almost no manager or company does this as a one-off. This is the way that they operate because they view it as “how things are done” and because nobody has forcibly stopped them from doing it.

If the project fails, nobody is going to die. If the company folds, you can get another job. You don’t have to suffer in order to stroke someone’s ego or to make a company more profitable.

They are trading money for your time and skill. They don’t own you just because they deposit money into your checking account. Keep reminding yourself of this, because it is incredibly easy to succumb to the abuse and start to see it as normal. I speak from experience.

While you’re reminding yourself that you’re a person and not a “resource,” start working to get yourself out of the situation.

If you just joined the company and your alarm bells are going off, go back to the network of people that you met during the job search. You have an advantage because you probably still have everything spun up. In fact, you may have even had other offers or other positions that you were working on when you accepted the offer to the nightmare job.

Take advantage of that.

For the rest of you, I’m going to give you some advice that many of you may chafe at – with regards to your current job, you should start clawing your time back. I don’t care if you (or your boss) think this makes you a “slacker,” you need to focus on the things that matter.

Take time during your day to upskill on things that you see a market in and are interested in (honestly, your employer should be encouraging you to do this anyway). Network (in person or virtually). Start putting feelers out for jobs that interest you.

Prioritize getting out of the abusive situation and into a better one. I know that will feel like you’re lying to your current employer (and, in fact, it may occasionally require that you do lie to them in order to get out) and that we’ve been conditioned to think of that as bad and wrong but you don’t owe an abuser anything. Keep reminding yourself that you are leaving because they are hurting you (and they are) and that this isn’t just a situation where you simply want to do new things.

Abuse is not normal or acceptable in any situation. Not in your relationship with your family, not in your relationship with your friends, and certainly not in your relationship with your employer (who will happily replace you just as soon as they think it makes sense to do so).

Do not let them gaslight you. Do not let them make you feel guilty. They will try. I’ve seen it first hand more times than I care to think about. Abusers will try every trick in the book to manipulate you in order to get what they want. You may need to work very hard to keep it from working on you.

When you give notice, they may even try to guilt trip you or attempt to convince you how “important” you are or even try to say that they aren’t accepting your notice. Screw that. You’ve arranged a way out and you’re taking it no matter what they try to do. They don’t get to keep you.

Make sure you use up your vacation and sick time before you leave. That’s a part of your salary and not all states require it to be paid out to you when you quit. Not taking that time doesn’t make you “dedicated” or a “team player,” it means you’re being taken advantage of.

Besides, you shouldn’t be “dedicated” to a place that is abusing you in the first place (though I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to really convince yourself of this).

Companies will still hire you if you leave a toxic job shortly after taking it. It’s not the black mark that so many articles and insecure bosses make it out to be. In fact, it’s generally only the bad ones that try to view “short resume entries” as a sign that an employee is bad instead of as a sign that the company they worked for was bad (or, at best, not a good fit).

You only get one life. Don’t let someone run you into the ground, ruin your health, and possibly end your life just so they might have the chance to profit from your suffering. There are better options out there.


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