The Canary in the Coal Mine and Leaving Dysfunctional Groups

The expression “canary in a coal mine” originates from coal miners using canaries as a kind of early warning system. The miners would take the birds into the mine and periodically check-in on their status. The delicate canaries were more susceptible to gases like carbon monoxide, so if they suddenly stopped moving, miners would be alerted of dangerous air conditions.

Hence, the expression¬†“canary in a coal mine” is an idiomatic way of talking about events that portend negative things to come.

Dysfunctional Families, Groups, and Organizations

A psychiatrist friend observed that with (truly) dysfunctional families, it’s the healthy members who leave.

Here’s the implied theory. If you are a healthy and functioning human being, there’s only so much dysfunction you can tolerate before you have to get out of that relationship.

I think you can take the idea further.

Let’s assume this is you. You’re in a dysfunctional family. Maybe you fight it or try to fix it. Maybe you’re successful. Maybe not. Eventually one of three things is going to happen.

  • You’re going to succumb to the dysfunction and change to conform to the family norm.
  • You’re going to reject it and leave the family.
  • The family is going to reject you.

These dynamics are not limited to families. They extend to just about any group or organization.

But it’s not easy to leave.

Leaving a dysfunctional group means we can’t ignore the ugly bits that have been, to some degree, a part of our identity. After all, we chose to be a part of that group (exception: family). The individuals in that group are, in a way, mirrors of us. If the group is dysfunctional are we similarly broken? While I don’t think that necessarily follows, it’s not fun to ask these questions.

Leaving is hard because it’s a decision riddled with self-doubt. It means making judgments about ourselves and people we care about. It’s made even harder because very often the individuals in these groups are good; perhaps they’re just caught up in the cage. We have real empathy for these friends.

Breaking free of the cage and leaving is hard.

It’s that hardness that makes leaving such a powerful signal that something might not be right.

Perhaps leavers are the canaries in the coal mine.

3 replies on “The Canary in the Coal Mine and Leaving Dysfunctional Groups”

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and what you’ve been learning, Justin. I enjoy reading what you write. I first found you via, and I’ve been following along since then.

Does this post have something to do with the other post your wrote recently about starting a new job? Just wondering because I really related with this. I started a new job about a month ago after being with a company for 9 years, and while there were certainly good things from my time there, the new place have been a breath of fresh air.

Anyway, thanks for sharing, and I hope you’re adjusting to the new position well.


I wondered if anyone picked up on the potential tie-in there (mind, given my infrequency of updating this site of late, perhaps its somewhat obvious!).

There is definitely a connection. I’m hesitant to go into a lot of detail–not sure it’s necessary and I’m not sure it’s something I should share publicly, either.

While this analogy may not be entirely accurate (or perhaps too simple), I can’t help but wonder if we periodically need a sort of “factory reset” when it comes to the places we work and the jobs we do. We get so bogged down in the work, the routine, the people, and we start to suffer under the weight of it all. We need to escape it and start over.

It’s not a great analogy, but I do think we can tend to get in ruts, doing the things that worked in the past but don’t work in the present (even if the way we did them in the past was, objectively, better). We then get in this pattern of failure and frustrating — failure b/c we know what we’re doing makes sense; frustration b/c it doesn’t seem to work; frustration because you can’t “go back.”

Just thinking out loud. The reality of the situation I left in my past was certainly a bit of the above; but more, there was real dysfunctionality and I needed to get out. But leaving Google is at least a little like leaving your family — very difficult to do (though for different reasons).

Thanks for the response. I certainly wasn’t expecting you to go into detail, but it’s helpful to know that was on you mind when writing this.

Your post about leaving was very gracious and appreciative of the time you had working at Google, and I applaud your commitment to remembering it positively and focusing on what was good (knowing that there are things about it that probably weren’t).

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