Some people renounce goals or desires at work for emancipation rather than for conformity.

Not having it all: why people renounce certain workplace ambitions

4 April 2023

The article at a glance

A new study co-authored by Dr Thomas Roulet of Cambridge Judge Business School examines the various ways people renounce goals or desires at work – for conformity but also emancipation – in this era of the great resignation.

A new study co-authored by Dr Thomas Roulet of Cambridge Judge Business School examines the various ways people renounce goals or desires at work – for conformity but also emancipation – in this era of the great resignation.

Thomas Roulet.
Dr Thomas Roulet

Whether in work or elsewhere in life, most people eventually accept that they can’t always have it all so they give up on certain goals. It’s usually not so bleak as the “lives of quiet desperation” that philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously wrote about, but renouncing certain aspirations is something that individuals do in workplaces around the world.

But how do people make sense of such renouncing – defined as “the act or practice of giving up or rejecting something once enjoyed or desired”? And what types of renouncing do people do in the workplace?

A new study published in the European Management Review examines workplace renouncing through the experience of academics in French business schools faced with the stark dilemma of “publish or perish” – in which faculty members face pressure to publish papers in top academic journals at the risk of falling off the track to tenure and secure employment.

Model outlines 6 different experiences of renouncing at work

The study co-authored by Thomas Roulet of Cambridge Judge Business School builds a model that identifies 6 different experiences of renouncing that split, broadly, into (a) the renouncing of certain ambitions in order to succeed in other areas, and (b) renouncing that amounts to “letting go” and accepting a less-desirable outcome as unavoidable.

The 6 experiences of renouncing are:

  1. renouncing as sacrifice (sacrificing freedom)
  2. renouncing as self-discipline (self-imposed choices to follow norms)
  3. renouncing as a challenge (viewing renouncing as an opportunity for self-improvement)
  4. renouncing as a resignation (resigning oneself to marginalisation)
  5. renouncing as a means of self-preservation (such as achieving more work-life balance)
  6. renouncing as a means of emancipation (renouncing leading to self-realisation).

Renouncing at work can be painful or satisfying

The topic of how individuals experience renouncing specific tasks and aspirations had been little studied previously. “This paper aims to offer the first understanding of such an experience by capturing how organisational participants approach renouncing at work,” the authors say.

Beyond the different experiences of renouncing, the study also identifies 3 broad approaches to renouncing:

  1. “suffered” renouncing (people feel they have no other choice)
  2. “accepted” (compliance with norms)
  3. “chosen” (to reach coveted outcomes).

“Our model enables us to map out how renouncing at work ends up being an ambivalent human experience that can function as a requirement or as a proactive choice, as constraining or emancipatory, as associated with resistance or compliance, as painful or satisfying, and, ultimately, as meaningful or meaningless,” says the study. “We also unveil the potentially positive aspects of renouncing at work, when it creates opportunities for self-realisation under constraints.”

The pandemic has prompted people to revisit their priorities

“There has been a lot of recent attention, heightened by the pandemic, about how people find meaning in work and relate to the workplace,” says study co-author Thomas Roulet, Associate Professor in Organisation Theory at Cambridge Judge Business School. “Our paper identifies renouncing as what we call a ‘pivotal human experience’ through which people make sense of their work – making it more meaningful or less meaningful.

“In this era of the ‘great resignation’ at work, our model of how and why people renounce certain things at work and how it can have some positive results for individuals – what the study terms ‘revisiting choices with more indulgence.’”

The study focuses on 30 academics at the 3 French business schools who, to be successful under the constraints of their roles, renounce meaningful aspects of their work and, in some cases, their personal and family lives. “We must eat fast, and the children should go to bed as quickly as possible so that we can switch on our computers and start working,” said one academic interviewed.

Publish, publish, and then publish again: lots of pressure on academics

The study says that French business schools operated in a low-pressure involvement until around 15 years ago, but the reduction of public funding coupled with globalisation of higher education had introduced a more competitive environment. “You need to publish, publish, publish and even now, still, I need to publish,” said one academic interviewed for the study.

Numerous people interviewed said that they sacrifice the pleasure of doing research in order to become more productive in terms of publications, and had given up research in certain areas because those topics are unfashionable in terms of placement in leading journals.

“When I started my career as a researcher, I was passionate about research and had time to get into theories, to write papers that I really liked,” said one. “Today, it’s about publishing.”

Yet some other academics (who tend to be more senior and thus more job-secure) had used renouncing as a tool to emancipation – in effect renouncing further career achievement through publication in top journals by focusing on their academic freedom to instead research what they enjoy.

Firms need to give visibility to workplace renouncing, which is usually invisible

Although the research was conducted before recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT, some academics interviewed said that time-demanding research methodologies are being abandoned in favour of easier and faster methodologies, which could lead to plagiarism or falsifying data. The study invites organisations to give visibility to renouncing at work, which is “likely to be invisible” while strongly affecting employee wellbeing, and to “be alert to how and why people renounce certain things in the workplace”.

The study

The study in the European Management Review – entitled “Making sense of renouncing: a typology of types, motives, and approaches to renouncing at work” – is co-authored by Thibaut Bardon and Sandrine Frémeaux of Audencia Business School, France: Clara Letierce of Burgundy School of Business, France; and Thomas Roulet of Cambridge Judge Business School.

This article was published on

4 April 2023.