Tag Archives: challenging norms

Breaking the Rules: Epilogue (One Year Later)

One year ago today it was Friday.  That night I ran into an ex I’d been in love with, for the first time since he’d suddenly dumped me over a year earlier.  He didn’t know I saw him, and it was a near-Perfect Running Into An Ex-Beloved Scenario (I looked hot, I was genuinely having fun, and he looked back at me when he left with his wilting date).

But even more importantly, it was the day that I resigned from my latest, and perhaps last, full-time job.  Remember?  The toxic one I told you all about last year starting with my first post, and continuing with the Breaking the Rules series?

A year later, the only thing I miss about leaving is the financial abundance and stability I left behind — temporarily (business is picking up!).  The main thing I regret is not having stuck to my guns when I said I was planning to leave — before I was offered a title change that was later rescinded, before I was disciplined for taking a courageous stand, before my Beloved Boss (and others) got to put me in a box that made them feel justified in mistreating me and finally escorting me off the property 3 days after I resigned.

Sometimes I think about writing them to explain and try to mend things, since I’m pretty sure they feel as betrayed as I do.  But then I realize I’m still angry and I have a right to be, and I’m done with always being the one to try to mend broken things and tie up loose ends.  It’s not like I attempted multiple times to explain, dialogue, and reach clarity or understanding, if not agreement.  It’s not like I gave ample opportunity for understanding to happen, even when it might have been in my best interest to selfishly fight instead.

But I’m learning life is messy, and even though I don’t like messes of any kind, sometimes the mess is perfect.

But if so, why were they honored for an achievement that was my doing, months after I left, based on data that is no longer accurate since I’ve been gone?  Why did I have to be right — that what I created is a skeleton of its former self, and the person they finally hired to replace me (10 months later) is an internal employee with zero expertise in the necessary fields, but is a reliable yes-woman and company drone who toes the party line, takes no risks, and assumes no real leadership?

I guess they finally got what they really wanted.

I hate injustice.  I hate unfairness.  And I hate most of all being right about crappy things happening.  I want to hold onto my faith in a happy ending.  I blame myself in part for making the mess that no one can seem to clean up.

But…maybe I got what I really wanted too…?

Ironic and perfect in its timing, I had lunch just yesterday with a former colleague that had had a similar role to mine in another institution, and had also been manipulated, disrespected, betrayed and abused (worse than me), culminating in her being escorted off the premises of her institution six months before I was.  She sued, won, and received a settlement…and yet over a year later, her eyes water when she tells the story.

I still wonder why we do the things we do, and why some of us stand and fight while others comply.  Last year I read a book called Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by the talented journalist Eyal Press, which explores this very question.  He studies a Swiss police captain who refused to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country.  He interviews a Serb who defied leaders to help Croats during the war in Yugoslavia, and profiles a member of an elite unit of the Israeli army who refuses to serve in the occupied territories during the Second Intifada.  He ends with the story of a corporate whistle blower — and a Latina immigrant — in the US securities industry of the early 2000s.

Not one of these people’s stories play out like a Hollywood movie — all of them suffer for their choices.  And yet the normalcy of their personalities, lives and choices defies Hollywood hero/ine narratives.  They weren’t rebels by nature, nor exceptional in their personality traits.  In fact, they uncynically believed in the ideals or institutions they were charged to uphold and acted accordingly, or learned something new that challenged their ideas and assumptions.  They were also in positions to experience the personal, tangible consequences of their choices firsthand.  They felt empathetic emotions for other people and almost instinctively acted to help them, but also possessed an ability to tolerate the pain of acting alone and against the group.

Such individuals defy the notion that given certain situations, following orders or rules is a natural and normal  defense for doing justice and violence, for not everyone chooses to do injustice or violence, or to stand silently by.  Some unexceptional people simply exercise the “moral imagination” we all possess, and choose differently.  Despite the morality and integrity of their actions, they are often punished for going against the group.  Part of this is because they become symbols of what others should have done.

So heroes and heroines are just like us, which means each of us can be a hero or heroine.  It’s our choices (not our superhero mutant genes) that define us and move justice.  I don’t mean to equate my experience with a toxic job to the gravity of what was faced by a Swiss general during Nazism, a Serb during the Croatian War of Independence, an IDF solider or a corporate whistleblower.  But I do identify with their almost naively believing in what could and should be and acting in alignment with those ideals, with their ability to tolerate going against the grain, and with the effect of being undetached from experiencing the consequences of my actions in a way my colleagues were not.

I just wish more could appreciate what I — and the colleague I was lunching with yesterday — have done, and follow suit.  Change and justice would be so much swifter!  But there I go again, thinking about fairness and how attainable alternate realities are.  I want to rewrite the story with a different ending, like a painful breakup.

And the separation from my job — I may have mentioned before — is like a breakup.  I still pass by the buildings, hear about the goings on (mostly bad and frustrating), and talk to people still there or who have also left.  It still gives me a little knot in my stomach.  I still feel resentment.  I want to be free.

Here’s a blurb I wrote six weeks before I left, but never published.  The first part is an email excerpt from a wise, older friend:

I, like you, believed that ‘letting go’ meant giving up.  Once I figured out that it really meant ‘joining the flow of energy’, it began to make sense and certainly became much easier than struggling against myself and the current. What has become so delightfully astonishing is that once I let go, doors just fly open, ones which either I would never have been able to open myself or even thought of approaching.  The sequencing of events just blows me away and I get so tickled at my self for doubting and being so slow to ‘wake up’. I gather you are making progress and letting the scales fall away and the sunlight come in.  What a refreshing friend you are.

I reflected:

I feel angry because I feel betrayed and let down.  My boundaries were violated, I was not treated, supported, or valued the way I wanted.  Those I trusted didn’t come through all the way.

I feel sad because things didn’t turn out the way I hoped — because I can still see how wonderful and beautiful they could be, even though they aren’t.  I feel sad to see how I am contributing to the problem now.  I feel sad to be saying goodbye to a few pleasantries and sweetnesses.

It feels like another breakup.

Indeed, the themes persist.  And yet, I now realize I can be free.  The truth is the resentment is less than it was.  The knot is looser.  They got what they wanted, but ultimately so did I.   I’m not ready or willing to give up my high hopes for the possibilities, my high expectations for humanity, or my belief in “true” love.  But like a jilted lover, I want to be wanted, even by someone I don’t want.  I want to be chased, yearned after, missed, spoken about in reverent whispers instead of tense silences.  I want to have parted as friends.

I still want to have a “Perfect Running Into An Ex-Beloved Scenario” like I did the night of June 1, 2012.  But I don’t think it’s coming.

Messy, yes.  Not what I wanted or would have chosen, yes.  Perfect…likely yes, in ways I may never even know.

I join the flow of energy…

In lak ech,

Jaxsine

Marriage — to take his name…or not?

Who are we, as women?  As a woman, who are you?  Do you know?  If so, how do you express that? What sums up your identity?

For me, a big part of that is my name.  It’s something sacred.  It’s my calling card in the world.  It’s something that identifies me as me.  It’s something that provides continuity and coherence  in the long story that is my life.

I don’t always like my name, and in truth I legally modified my birth name several years ago to better suit me — I literally bought my first name an additional letter.  I don’t always like my last name.  It’s hard to spell and people often mispronounce and/or misspell both my first and last names.

But it’s mine.

I read an article the other day that struck a nerve.  Titled “Retro Marriage Trend Makes a Comeback, for Better or Worse” the piece describes how large majorities of women are now taking their husbands’ last names when they marry.  There seems to be conflicting data on whether this is more common among older women or younger women, but one statistic presented in the article is that 8% of women now keep their maiden names, compared to a high of 23% in the 1990s.

This troubles me.  It’s hard enough for women to discover who we are, what our values are, what our unique gifts and dreams are, and how to manifest them.  It’s hard enough for women to be seen as whole people, to have a Self outside the needs of other people — our children, spouses, partners, parents, and siblings.  It’s hard enough for women to be seen, heard and taken seriously — or for us to take ourselves, our voices, our lives and our responsibilities seriously.

So why add to all that potential for getting lost and not forming a solid independent Selfhood the additional variable of a name change?  A change in our major identifier, that connects us with our entire lives?  And a change that typically happens at an age when we’re just about to burst onto the stage of our own lives?

Maybe women in the United States don’t know the history behind the custom of changing names.  It comes from English law where women had nothing — were nothing — without attachment to a male.  First that male was their father, then it was their husband.  Women — even ones from rich families — had no right to own any property of their own, and no right to much of anything.  As economic entities literally owned by men, we women were vaginas and wombs used to pass on the names of men and their property (to sons) or to form economically and politically advantageous alliances with other families (through marrying off daughters).  To lose or gain a name was to lose or gain basic rights and economic safety.

And by the way the term “maiden name” is sexist in itself, implying that a pre-married woman is (and should be) a virgin.  Of course men enjoy no comparable labels distinguishing the various stages of their sexual activity (which is another subtext of unmarried vs. married — don’t get me started on the whole “Miss”, “Mrs.”  and “Ms.” thing).

It’s not this way in all parts of the world.  In countries colonized by Spain instead of England, people have at least two surnames — one from the father and one from the mother.  (This norm may have originally come from Arabic-speaking cultures, which spread to Spain.)  While the maternal surname eventually gets dropped after two generations, every person carries identifiers from both parents.  Latin American women rarely change their names when they marry, and if they do, it’s often added to the others and preceded by a “de” to show it’s a married surname.

Also in Spanish-speaking countries — cultures often thought to be more machista (sexist or male dominant) than the USA — women have long been able to own property separate from men.  In fact, California was the first state where women could own property separate from any man.  This was a holdover from Mexican law that was preserved when California became a part of the United States.

I understand the practical reasons for changing one’s name.  Sometimes we women don’t like our birth surnames.  Sometimes we don’t like our family of origin and are happy to join a new tribe.  Sometimes we want continuity with our children.  When I was married, I got a new passport with a hyphenated last name in anticipation of children, and signed legal documents as a hyphenated person when they were jointly executed with my then-spouse.  But nowhere else.  It gleefully tickled my feminist funny bone to no end when we’d get spam phone calls from some poor soul wanting to talk to Mr. [my last name].

My main issue about changing names is this — why is the name change only a woman’s issue?  Why don’t men get to go through this?  If marriage implies a union, why not make it equal and NOT a subsuming of the woman’s identity to the man’s?  Some men do change their names or both spouses take on a new hyphenated name, and I’d love to see more of this.  I adore how Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, actually combined his last name (Villar) with his wife’s (Raigosa) to create a whole new entity.  What a metaphor for partnership, union, shared new identity, and equity!

Marriage today has its roots in feudal economic relationships where women are not only unequal to men, but their property.  Because of this inequity and the burdens it brings, we continue to have to make myriad decisions that are men’s privilege to never have to consider — like having to time children before it’s too late biologically but after it’s sufficiently economically stable; whether to try parenthood plus career or choose one; like balancing”work work” and housework.  On top of all that, we have to decide what to call ourselves too?

There must be some payoff.  Let’s face it, the logistics of changing your name is a HUGE pain in the arse, especially in the digital age.  So ladies, what is the payoff?

I suspect there is another piece here that isn’t talked about much.  Women changing their names upon marriage is a public declaration of the married state.  It’s a way to announce to the world “I am married now!”  It’s a way to announce “I am now legitimate before the world, as are my children and my sexual activity!”  Even though we single women tend to be better offer financially and (according to some studies) also happier than married women — especially ones with children — there is still a stigma attached to being a single woman with our wild, unclaimed vaginas bandying about.  The stigma is that somehow we haven’t been able to attract a man that wants to marry us (which apparently should be our goal)…and therefore we are defective somehow.  Unintentionally perhaps, women taking on their husbands’ name contributes to a societal sense of “there are better and worse buckets of womanhood, and I’m in the ‘good woman’ bucket now!”

Let’s be honest.  There is some truth to the existence of the good bucket. Being married — and letting the whole world know we’re married by changing our name — still gives us an identity, legitimacy, and personhood that singledom does not.  Also, few relationships in a woman’s life outside of marriage have the power to determine the path and quality of a woman’s life (and that of her children) in terms of basic physical safety and economic well-being…whether for better or worse.

I hope for the day when marriage is NOT such a defining and critical moment in a woman’s life to the extent she feels compelled, or obligated (one of my recently-married acquaintances was pressured by her new husband to change her last name because it was “the polite thing to do”) to change her identity.  I hope for the day when marriage is just as critical and defining a moment for men.  And I hope for the day when men have to wrestle with the big questions of life, identity, work, children, and family to the same degree as women.

In the meantime, I do my part to encourage this shift by resisting the norm and its oppressive history.  While I may hyphenate again one day, I retain my surname, and along with it my identity, my herstory, my whole personhood, and my Self.

What do you think?  Why did you change your name? Or not?

In lak ech!

Jaxsine

“Do YOU have CHILDREN?!” …adventures in effective communication and childfree travel

I was on a beach in the Caribbean. It was a long-planned, greatly anticipated vacation at the end of a particularly grueling year. The plan was to sleep, read, write, enjoy nature, eat fabulous food prepared by someone else, and contemplate great questions about life, work, and purpose. So far so good. I wasn’t alone on that beach by any means; three cruise ships had docked that morning – one from Disney no less – and instead of reading my book, I was actually preferring to watch a super enthusiastic man growling and splashing about with his super jubilant son (I gathered) and two nephews, all under age five. I’d just returned from an epic snorkeling trip, and the water and salt were slowly evaporating off my contented body as I enjoyed the lingering moment in the sun.

Gradually, I became aware of the family occupying the beach chairs behind me. There seemed to be one woman and a gaggle of children (also under five) whose names I quickly learned because she was constantly admonishing them in a fifties-housewife-on-valium sort of extra-saccharine, extra-restrained voice. This voice was having little effect. Julia in particular seemed to be a handful. I got the sense she was going to do what she pleased, with a younger one, Estela, sometimes following suit. Julia would wander off to the water, or to the boats, just out of danger. Sometimes a boy her age, Leo, was a part of her shenaningans. I saw in their faces not the look of “I’m exploring this fascinating world, being curious and delightful” but rather “Screw you grownups, I’m gonna do whatever the hell I want and you can’t stop me.”

There was also whining and shrieking. Again, shrieks of delight are one thing, shrieks of manipulation and defiance are another.  And the whine of a human child is one of my least favorite sounds on earth.  Shrieks of manipulation and defiance administered in unpredictable bursts at full volume are even lower on the list.

And yet one more startling round of three children shrieking in whiny unison had just burst a few feet behind my head.

What happened next was out of the ordinary for me. Not only had I not given much thought to whether to say anything, what, or how, I somehow reached my limit with no warning, leaned around to look at the family behind my beach chair and communicated the following with an unaccustomed intensity:

“Oh. Come! ON!!”

In retrospect I’m proud of myself for accomplishing three things I’ve been working on: being in the moment, being honest about my feelings, and not thinking too much. But even if I’d thought about it, I wouldn’t have expected what happened next.

The woman – in an equally nasty tone – replied: “Why don’t you just move?!! There are children here!!”

I’m not entirely sure how I responded, but I think I said: “Oh, that’s your solution?!”

Pissed-off mama bear: “What would you like me to do, kill them?!”

Whoa. Even in that moment, I was aware that particular statement was so not about me.  Startled by this infanticidal suggestion, I got some of my sanity back and asked [tone still a bit nasty]: “How about something in the middle?!”

Her reply (so not a response to my statement-disguised-as-a-question): “Do you have children?!!!”

I turned my head back around to face the ocean and shook it in an exasperated “you’re worthless and I’m done having this stupid conversation with you” sort of way.  But it was because I knew she’d just played the mommy card on me and I couldn’t win.

After a few seconds, I thought of something to say: “Whether or not I have children is irrelevant to the fact that yours are being spoiled brats and disruptive to others!!” I also thought of “Yes, there are children here, do you see any of them acting the fool quite like yours?” and “Your children’s need to shriek and whine, and your need to do nothing about it are not more important than my need to have some reasonable peace and quiet on my hard-earned vacation!” I thought of calling her mommy card play and slightly lying: “Yes I do, she’s 34 years old and never acted like yours even on a bad day!” or outright lying and saying, “Yes, and I left them at home since this is not the place for young children, especially misbehaving mini a-holes like yours!”

I also thought of “Why don’t you leave?! You are the ones who are acting inappropriately for this setting!!” or “It’s your job as a grownup to teach your children to be appropriate to the environment and considerate of others!”  (Not too long before I’d lost it, Mama Bear had been pleading with the kids to be quiet since people were getting beachside massages nearby – no joke, and you should have seen the therapists’ faces at one point, watching the performance.) I could have played the classic female you’re-out-of-line-with-the-group-and-I-speak-for-the-mob card and said “Can’t you see you’re ruining the experience for everyone here?!”

But I didn’t say anything, and thankfully the aunt/sister/friend returned, who turned out to be the mother of Julia and Estela, and they calmed down. Mama Bear left to go “check on Baby Alexander” (good grief there were more?).

This episode brought up some things for me as a childfree (childless by choice) person.  First, my anger about the tremendous and unfair entitlement many parents feel, just because they are parents. I understand there may be some biological and hormonal issues at play in their feelings and reactions that I know nothing about, but if I were to have gotten drunk on piña coladas and traipsed up and down the beach shrieking, whining, bothering strangers, touching other people’s things and partially exposing myself too, I would have been asked to leave, and rightly so. As a group we tolerate behavior from children and young people that is inappropriate, and then wonder years later why they’ve grown up feeling so entitled and acting so helpless and selfish (Boomer parents of Gen Yers, are you listening?)

And speaking of the group, the whole idea of the nuclear family is a recent development during just the last few decades of the thousands of years of the human experience, and one we aren’t really built for. The responsibility of raising a child (much less two or three or more) being born by one and maybe two adults alone, is not something we are equipped for, nor do well. We should all play a part in ensuring the safety and appropriate socialization of children and youth because their socialization is critical to us all. I may have decided not to become a parent myself, but I have a vested material interest in your children growing up to be respectful, considerate, mature, contributing individuals. I have stepped in more than once to ensure the physical safety of a child that’s not mine, but not to discipline or ensure emotional safety, because of my well-founded fear of the caretaker’s wrath. [By the way — never doubt that women are capable of aggression, especially when our children are threatened. We would do well to cultivate the same level and immediacy of anger and action when our own person – our bodies, our communities, our planet – are threatened as well.]

I think the way many parents treat their children like their private personal possessions is unhealthy for them and all of us and also unrealistic, since not only do I pay taxes that help support those kids (and vote for pro-kid initiatives by the way), I also pay – and handsomely – for those kids who end up needing public services, prison, or other types of support. I pay in less material ways as well when children and young people grow up being irresponsible, disrespectful, incompetent, poor critical thinkers and self-centered.

So just as “there are children here” doesn’t give permission to those children to behave however they want, it also doesn’t give you, as the adult in charge, permission to flail and beseech helplessly without taking charge, managing the situation, mentoring the younglings and demonstrating leadership.

Along those lines, the second thing this episode brought up for me is my disagreement with the belief that only parents have the right to say anything about how children are acting or being raised. The classic “Do you have children?!” phrase isn’t a question, it’s a challenge to the legitimacy of any concerns I might have about your children’s behavior or your choices as a parent. It’s a trap whose primary purpose is to get me to shut the hell up. If I say “no” I don’t have children, the response is that I therefore can’t possibly understand or know what I’m talking about, and should shut the hell up. But if I say “yes” there would be some other excuse for why I’m unqualified to have an opinion or a say, and should still shut the hell up: “I bet they’re terrors too” or “You probably don’t love them as much as I love mine” or “You probably beat yours to make them mind” or “You raised yours in a different time when it was easier” or “But I have to do this on my own and you have help” or “But I have more than you” or “But you don’t know what it’s like to raise these children.” Blah blah blah.

I get that as a non-parent I don’t understand what it’s like to have my own child. I really don’t know what it’s like to be a mom – all day every day for years on end. But I do have some sense of what it’s like to parent. I had a hand in raising my much-younger sister (the aforementioned 34-year-old), I’ve taken care of kids of various ages off and on for many years, and I’ve had many intimate glimpses into the lives of friends with children. One of the reasons I’m childfree is because I do have a sense of what parenting requires, and I’m not willing to sign up for everything that commitment requires, especially with so many uncertainties a part of the bargain. I believe everyone should give much serious thought to this choice — to taking on one of the most important jobs for humanity — and I feel many millions (billions?) more should bow out as I did instead of throwing their frustrations or shortcomings in meeting their job requirements in the faces of those who said “no thanks”. Empathy enhances connection and broadens perspective, but my complete understanding of what parents go through is not required to have observations, concerns, and requests. Understanding doesn’t equal agreement.

Which brings me to the third item this episode brought up for me. The mommy card play is designed as a trap not only to shut up someone like me, but also to shut down mommy’s insecurities and serve as a righteous “get out of jail free” pass. Mama Bear’s sudden rage and suggestion she kill the kids was coming from a deep place. I suspect her embarrassment and frustration were simmering just under the surface, and my nasty comment just boiled her over by expressing what she felt she couldn’t, in order to remain a good person, a good woman, and a good mommy. Maybe her extra-restrained-extra-saccharine-fifties-housewife-on-valium manner was meant to regulate her own nervous system more than her kids’ behavior. Maybe she was jealous of me — older than her, rocking my bikini, enjoying the sun and some adult beverages unencumbered by anyone else’s antics or whims or schedules. Maybe she dreams of killing her kids and being free, and feels guilty or represses these thoughts. Murder was really nowhere on my mind that day, just a desire for less shrieking. I could have asked for this in a way that was less nasty, more mature, more appropriate, more considerate and more understanding – all the things I wanted from her and her children.

Thankfully, the Universe gave me an opportunity to try again. The very next night, after travelling all day and arriving tired on an island in another part of the Caribbean, there was a bit of revelry going on in the hot tub just outside my bungalow. Normally that was the sort of thing I’d be interested in checking out, but I’d had enough of meeting new people for one day, and my body was weary. I read for a while, and went to bed just before 11, the hour of the B&B’s quiet hours. The party group had left for a while, but were back, and after several minutes trying to sleep despite the noise, I decided to act before I got really frustrated, and thought a little about how to approach this. I opened the sliding door to my bungalow and addressed the six folks in the hot tub in a calm, even voice with something like this:

“I don’t mean to break up anyone’s fun, but it’s past 11 and I’m having trouble sleeping because I can hear you guys even with my door closed. Do you think you might be able to continue your party in a way that can allow me to sleep?”

The group was mildly apologetic, and I heard one quiet “wow.” The group dispersed and I went to sleep easily, putting aside my mild feelings of guilt and false mental scripts about being a party pooper or selfish.

The next morning at breakfast, two women sat down at a table near mine and said hello to the folks at another table, addressing them affectionately as “troublemakers.” Based on this, I assumed they had been part of the hot tub group, since I hadn’t seen their faces last night in the dark. I braced myself for some passive aggressive public shunning. Instead, after I chuckled at something witty and sexy one of the women said regarding the previous night’s events, she addressed me, asking if I was the one who’d asked them to be quiet. I said yes, and that I hoped I hadn’t come across as bitchy, but clear, assertive, and non-violent. She said not at all, said my approach was indeed just that, and actually thanked me!

That night at happy hour, the same pair invited me to join them, and we had a delightful lengthy conversation which continued the next morning at breakfast. I left the B&B later that day having gained two new friends, enriched by their humor and intelligence, inspired by their happy relationship dynamic, and validated by their appreciation. In fact, they told me they had actually debriefed my response to their noise and found it very effective and aligned with their own values and goals.  Wow!!

Sometimes we’re not our best selves. Sometimes we learn from what happens when we’re not. And sometimes we get a do over, and find not only our paths again, but kindred souls on the same journey.

Happy New Year and Happy Blazing New Trails!

In lak ech,

Jaxsine

Sense and Sensibility: The Newtown Massacre

It’s happened again.  For the second time in a year, I’m blogging about a mass shooting.  For the fourth time in his presidency, Obama travelled today to a city to grieve with families after another bout of senseless violence.

And I am weary of hearing these incidents referred to as “senseless”.  From the principal of Columbine High School to the prime minister of Australia to news anchors and my Facebook friends, one of the most common words I hear is “senseless.”  But to me, it makes perfect sense.

In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.  When you take a society that values money and material things over people and relationships, add social isolation and lack of true community (like Adam Lanza’s upscale neighborhood where he occupied two bedrooms in his mother’s spacious home and some neighbors didn’t even know them), leave out critical education about mental and emotional health (as well as resources to identify and treat those with these challenges), leave out education about healthy communciation and anger/conflict management, and add a healthy dose of easy access to guns, you have situations like Newtown waiting to happen all over this country — a country where there are as many guns as people (300 million) and, compared to most other industrialized countries, a very high percentage of people experiencing mental and emotional illness, excess stress levels, and a lack of healthy coping skills or social support.

This is not meant as an indictment of the Lanza family or of Newtown, but a plea for us to look at the bigger picture,  We are all connected.  We can’t tolerate institutions that oppress and dehumanize us; an industrialized food system that not only does not nourish us but addicts our minds and weakens our bodies; a prison-industrial complex larger than any in the world; forms of entertainment that dehumanize us; a lifestyle that disconnects us from the earth, other lifeforms and spirit; a general disregard for the needs of women and children; a general lack of purpose, meaning, and love … and expect there to be no consequences.

Newtown is one of many consequences.

I’m grateful that this time around, there seems to be less usage of the word “evil” to describe these murders, as I decried in my post about the Aurora shooting, despite the fact that most of the Newtown dead were six-year-olds.  I can’t even imagine the horror of such a thing for a parent.

And yet we still need a responsibility check.  It’s not useful to decry such violence as senseless or incomprehensible, because it is neither.  Doing so absolves us of any responsibility, and makes us believe we are powerless.  We are not powerless.  The “society” we rail against is not an entity outside of us — it is something we each create each day with the jobs we choose to work in, the decisions we make, where we spend our money, what we eat, how we speak and think, and how we treat each other and ourselves.

And calling Adam Lanza — or James Holmes or any of the other recent perpetrators — “crazed” is also inaccurate and feeds into this kind of helpless thinking.  The folks who perpetrate these murders — who are typically young males, usually White — are methodical and deliberate, and take months to plan their attacks.  According to Jack Levin, a well-known professor of sociology and criminology, they don’t “go off” or “snap.”  What they do have is a sense of their problems being caused by other people — they blame everyone but themselves.  They too see themselves as powerless and unresponsible.

Levin also challenges the notion that these events are increasing.  On NPR the other day, he said that there are about 20 such mass murders per decade, with about 150 total victims.  In the meantime, he points out that there are about 15,000 individual homicides — per year.   However, Connecticut Senator John Larson said today that of the 12 worst mass shootings in our history, half have occurred in the last 5 years.

Regardless of who’s right, it seems most people feel things are coming to a head.  And solutions are already being proposed.  Paul Bennett, author of Glock: Rise of America’s Gun, said today that two short term solutions are (a) greater security in public places, and (b) better support and resources for people with mental and emotional illness.  Others are using Newtown to bolster the argument for gun control — I’ve already seen a couple online petitions to this effect.

And while gun control would certainly be a sane approach to the insane ease with which people can access deadly firearms in the U.S., it’s not the solution.  Guns are still tools used by people, and while limiting access can minimize the damage (there was an incident at a school in China on the same day as Newtown, and while the perpetrator, a man in his 30s, stabbed 22 children, none of them died), it doesn’t solve the problem of hurt people hurting people, and the epidemic of walking wounded in the U.S. and the world at large.

Much like I argued in my “Aurora, Anger, and Evil” post, the drama of the latest episode of mass violence in all its technicolor drama often obscures larger, more sinister problems and a bigger context.  It’s a symptom, not the problem per se.

Perhaps it’s helpful to think and talk about what is working.  Be humble and reflect on how there but for the grace of God go we.  How many of us, when we are being fully honest and self-aware, can’t think of a time we wouldn’t have liked to take out a bunch of fellow humans with an uzi?  Or take our own hopeless, miserable lives in some dramatic way?  Or feel like everything is someone else’s fault and someone has got to pay?

My hand goes up on all three of those.  It’s profound to think about the little things that stood in the way of me actually doing damage to others or myself in those moments.  Perhaps we can learn from this and not stop at celebrating the heroes of incidents like Newtown, like Dawn Hochsprung and Victoria Soto, but also try empathizing with and mourning the broken souls of young men like Adam Lanza.

We should grieve.  We should rage.  But we should NOT hide behind “hugging our children tighter” or stop our examination of the situation as “senseless” as if it were random and outside of our power.  The bigger context is that we need to see and own our power, and therefore our responsibility.

Lately I keep coming back to the Marianne Williamson quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.”  I think owning our own power, and all that entails, is one of the invitations and challenges of humanity as we move farther into the shift.

I’m heartened that President Obama, and others, are talking about “meaningful action”.  I’m glad he said tonight in Newtown that we will have to change.   I’m grateful that he said,

“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days … If we’re honest without ourselves, the answer is no. And we will have to change.”

He continued:

 “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”

And this, to me, is the key.  We are not powerless.   This violence isn’t senseless.  It isn’t incomprehensible.  In fact, it is in the comprehending, and in the activation of  our sensibilities — emotional capacity, responsiveness, and consciousness —  that we can make sense of this heartwrenching tragedy and take meaningful action in such a way that we take powerful responsibility for ourselves, those around us, our communities, and the “society” and country we all co-create, every day.

Que en paz descansen los muertos de Newtown y que duermen con los angelitos los sobrevivientes.

In lak ech.

Jaxsine

 

From Within or From Without?: The Locus of Catalyzing Change

My sister recently reminded me of a conversation we had years ago.  Apparently I was quite certain that the best way to create positive change in the world is to become a part of organizations and institutions and be a catalyst for change from within.  Infiltrate the system to bust it apart from the inside, so to speak.

I’ve changed my mind.  Well, not entirely — I still think change can, and should, come from inside organizations and institutions.  But having spent seven years trying to do just that, I now have a more complex view.

Each has its pros and cons.  Some of the pros of working from within:

  • You get to know the culture first hand, and therefore the most effective, appropriate strategies and tactics for change.
  • You get to know the people well, and build long-term relationships.  This not only eases change efforts and mitigates inevitable conflict and resistance, it is personally enriching.
  • If you are in a mangement role, you have some measure of power to actually implement change.
  • You may enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labor over time, and experience the benefits of the change directly.

Some of the cons:

  • You may not be taken as seriously as you should, or would like — people with subject matter expertise that are hired into an organization instantly lose some degree of credibility (ironically).
  • You may be viewed by outsiders or other groups to whom you are loyal, as a sell-out, or suspect.  You may be forced to choose between loyalties if they are perceived as contradictory.
  • There will likely be limitations on your ability to be completely frank or honest or act freely — and if you do, you may be forced to leave the organization or institution.
  • If telling the truth means going against the grain,you may be engulfed or silenced by organizational politics or leadership.
  • You may lose your original perspective and commitment to “the cause” due to the osmosis effect of the organization’s culture.
  • You have more to lose (e.g. professional reputation, career advancement opportunities, and sometimes the job itself).

Working to create organizational, institutional or systemic change from the outside also has pros and cons.  I am thinking of “outsiders” as both professional external consultants, and also members of community/grassroots agencies or movements.  Some of the pros:

  • Your stance, speech, and actions can maintain some level of “purity” — you don’t have to constantly compromise, self-monitor or negotiate multiple loyalties.  Therefore, your loyalty is less often questioned and your connection to “the cause” stays stronger and clearer.
  • You may have the ability to motivate changes through direct action (like protests or some form of civil disobedience or other disruption) or political activity that would be unfeasible or unwise for internal people.
  • If you are an external subject matter expert or consultant, you will be taken more seriously than an internal person saying the same thing.
  • You can push limits and ask difficult, thoughtful questions more safely — for all parties.
  •  You may have less to lose — at least directly, concretely, and immediately.

Some of the cons:

  • You have virtually no power to change the actual decisions, policies, or behaviors of the organization or institution
  • You run the risk of being perceived as a threat to the organization or institution, and not only not heard or taken seriously, but targeted in efforts to neutralize, discredit or destroy you and your group

You might notice that the content and length of the various lists reflect my recent switch from internal to external change catalyst.  You may also find fault or exceptions with some of the above points, or argue that they are relative, and you may be right.  To clarify, l believe change can, and should, come from both within and without.  But I have learned that there are some key elements that need to be in place in order for internal change efforts to succeed.

  1. Sufficient support.  This sounds like a cliche, but this is where any internal change efforts succeed or fail, and it’s where they usually start.  Regardless of the reasons for the support, two things are needed: (1) a sufficiently-sized group of allies and internal supporters (who are willing and able to voice their support), and (2) buy-in and motivation from key individuals with authority and decision-making power.  Little can be done without both, and you may start with just one or the other.  But down the road, if you have allies but no leadership buy-in, the changes won’t get traction and may even cause or exacerbate conflict, tension, or political jockeying.  If you have buy-in but no allies, the change catalyst runs the risk of quick burnout.  S/he also runs the risk of becoming an isolated token of a change effort that accomplishes little to nothing, or of vulnerability to being held accountable for the success of the entire initiative.  Either situation is supremely frustrating for the individual, and may harm her credibility, reputation, and self-esteem.  It’s easier to swat one fly than a swarm.
  2. Sufficient resources.  This may sound like a no-brainer, but not only are resources like time, money and expertise necessary for change, an allocation of resources by the organization reflects an actual commitment in action — words and good intentions are not enough.  This support should be in both monetary and human resources.  It needs to be adequate and meaningful, not superficial or temporary.  Of course there may be no resources at all when you start out on your change journey, but they must eventually be forthcoming.  You need more than hope that they might come — a plan, potential sources, and/or the promise from an influential leader with integrity are important.  Without adequate resources, the change will not go far or last long, and internal change catalyst run the risk of tokenism and burnout.
  3. A culture amenable to change through effective leadership.  Change is rarely easy and in large organizations and institutions it is typically slow, messy, and complicated.  However, in an organization driven by fear, or characterized by conflicting or unclear values, low accountability, poor leadership, injustice, poor communication, or chronic crisis mode, it is close to impossible.  Aside from real commitment, creating successful change requires managers (and employees) with sufficient courage, integrity, leadership skills, creativity and effective communication skills.  It requires a commitment to fairness, consistent accountability, and long-term strategic planning.  It also requires a basic tolerance for ambiguity, risk, and conflict.  In short, leaders must lead — not manage — and model the desired change.
  4. A good fit for the change catalyst.  Being an internal change catalyst is demanding, and not a good fit for everyone.  Such a person should demonstrate the leadership qualities described above.  But they should also have patience — creating change in organizations takes years, not weeks or months.   It can also be rocky, unpredictable and non-linear, so they should be in it for the long haul.  They should be willing and able to invest in creating good relationships at multiple levels in the organization with key individuals and stakeholders, building alliances and buy-in.  They should be flexible — willing and able to rethink things, change direction, or switch tactics.  They should be highly professional, credible, organized, and on top of things — since they will be scrutinized.  They should be assertive but tactful — willing and able to speak up and speak out when necessary, including to higher authority figures.  Finally, they need to be a “critical lover” of the organization or institution.  Being a “lover” affords not only credibility and a bridge to others in the organization, it provides the catalyst with much-needed commitment, inspiration, energy and motivation to get through tough times and hang in there.  Being “critical” helps maintain focus on the change objective.  Someone who is a “company person” or blindly loyal “lover” will not be committed to change nor inspire it, and someone who is critical but not a lover will burn out quickly, and alienate others.  A critical lover comes at the reality of the organization or institution with a “both-and” orientation — that it’s important and does much good, but also does harm or falls short.

Of course life and change are rarely tidy, so the above may not always be clear, and may likely happen in a non-linear fashion.  Resources may appear before support or vice versa, and the culture or leadership may evolve along with the change initiative.  Words like “adequate” and “sufficient” are subjective and dependent on individual interpretations.  And “fit” for the individual change catalyst may evolve — they may become less of a critical lover, or burn out.  The following are some questions which may help an internal change catalyst determine …

Should I stay or should I go? 

  • Am I a “critical lover” of the organization?
  • Is the work or culture just difficult, or is is toxic?  Is it killing me or some precious aspect of me?
  • Do I have the qualities and relationships that will allow me to be effective?
  • Am I in it for the long haul?
  • Does the need of the community — or my external loyalty groups — for me to stay inside outweigh my need to leave?
  • Can I stay inside and still act with integrity?  Are the compromises and sacrifices I am asked to make acceptable?
  • Do I have sufficient support? Resources?
  • If “no” to support or resources, do I have more than hope that they are forthcoming?
  • Am I seeing, and celebrating, milestones of progress?
  • Does the joy of the work outweigh the pain?

I would say a “yes” to most of these is necessary to effect true change as an internal catalyst.  My answers were all “no” (except for #2 🙂 ), so I left.  I realized I was on the two-year change plan instead of the ten-year plan.  I was much more of a critic than a lover (I was working in healthcare and while never a huge fan of healthcare in general — preferring alternative wellness paths for myself — I became less of a fan after being inside).  Ultimately I did not have sufficient support or resources, the culture was toxic and I was unable to stay in integrity.  And while I had high hopes at first and there were promising signs, when it came down to it, the leadership proved to be lacking the necessary leadership skills to back up words with actions.

In his paradigm-shifting book, Love and Power: A Theory and Practice of Social Change, Adam Kahane quotes businessman and Buddhist teacher Michael Chender:

When you get very close to the heart of the system, that is when the devils will appear.  By devils I means the system’s autoimmune system.  If you aren’t prepared for this, then you will be overwhelmed, and your efforts to change the system will fail. (p. 68)

I failed to anticipate, plan for, and appreciate the devils — the inevitable conflicts and unconscious resistance that come when birthing change.  I lacked the patience and empathy, and found myself going into what the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington (Washington Consulting Group and Social Justice Training Institute) calls the “enemy model” of thinking instead of the “energy model”, which views resistance as positive and necessary — an opportunity that provides energy for transformation, and is a sign that change is imminent.   While I have the ability to do what Washington recommends — engage, explore, welcome, listen, honor, embrace, and use such resistance — I lacked sufficient support, energy, motivation, joy and love to do so.

A final word about power, which is an essential and often unspoken aspect of change.  While there are many forms, at its most basic, power “is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).  Even though an internal change catalyst may have more organizational and institutional power to implement change than an outsider, that internal person’s power is always on loan from the organization or institution.  It is granted with multiple conditions of loyalty, obedience, toeing the party line, and (often) maintaining the status quo, and it can be withdrawn quickly and easily.

Kahane again:

To lead means to step forward, to exceed one’s authority, to try to change the status quo, to exercise power, and such action is by definition  disruptive.  There is no way to change the status quo without discomforting those who are comfortable with the status quo. (p. 116).

Those inside an organization or institution are often quite comfortable with the status quo — that’s why they haven’t left.  They may or may not be aware of this, and may say they want change or even help out — until it becomes real.  When change starts to become real, and actions or stands need to be taken, even allies can shrink back, eveni f this is not their intention or conscious desire.  Change is uncertainty, ambiguity, and obsolescence of the old.  These are frightening.  If the shrinking allies have more organizational power than the catalyst, they have the option of stopping or reversing the change, enforcing the status quo, or punishing the catalyst.  Being an internal change catyalyst means always working within this reality.

The power one has within an organization to catalyze change is different from the power without.  Each locus has its pros and cons and different sources of power.  And since change is often a change in power relations, the conversation about power itself is an important one.

But I will save that conversation for the next post. 🙂

What do you think?  Is it easier or better to create change from within or without? What is your experience?

In lak ech!

~Jaxsine~

Breaking the “r”ules: The Final Chapter

The moment finally arrived when I knew it was time to go.  I finally left an abusive marriage.  I finally exited the burning building, unable to see, let alone breathe.  I finally jumped out of the boiling water  That is to say — on Friday, June 1, 2012, I presented my New Boss with my resignation.  And on Tuesday, June 5th, the day of the Transition of Venus and following a new moon, she escorted me from the building with my personal effects at 11:30 a.m.

A lot happened in 12 weeks.  Let me catch you up.

We left off in the story where Beloved Boss presented me with a title change to make me stay (which by the way, I later learned came without a salary increase), then a three-day suspension for a nostril piercing after I removed the jewelry, then the withdrawal of the title change due to the discipline, then a change in reporting structure.  New Boss had been my peer and mentor, and the person ultimately in charge of the disastrous department I inherited a year ago.  I was starting to notice shortcomings in Beloved Boss and New Boss I had failed to see before, yet my faith in them — if not in the organization — remained intact.  At last writing, I believed Beloved Boss had my back and was fighting for me.

I was wrong.

So I was suspended without pay for three days the first week of April, just after being handed over to New Boss on April 1st in a hasty handoff that took even New Boss by surprise.  There was no joint meeting, no formal announcement, no clarification of expectations, no division of duties or planning.  I spent my unpaid days off cleaning, reflecting, and building my new business.  I decided not to accept the discipline unchallenged, and filed a three-page grievance letter on the last day I could file.  I laid out the timeline of events and cited the reasons I believed the suspension to be excessive and unfair: I took responsibility for my actions, others have not been disciplined at all for more serious violations (including of the same policies I had violated), I had indeed followed direct instructions, communication was unclear and inconsistent, and the additional circumstances surrounding the discipline (title change and withdrawal and change in reporting structure) were concerning.  I stated I had shared the events with select medical school and community leaders who were also concerned, and I asked to be paid for two of the three days and given the new title.

I emailed Beloved Boss to let her know I had submitted the grievance, expressing regret at any pain or disruption this would cause her, but stating I needed to do what was right for me and the future of my Office.  On the same day, I chaired a community meeting in which I let the group know of my new reporting structure.  The attendees expressed concerns about what this meant in terms of the future of the Office, my position, and the importance of our work.  I did my best to paint an optimistic picture without denying I also had questions.

Beloved Boss did not respond to my email, nor did I see her since she was no longer my boss, until two weeks later.  I thought our scheduled meeting was to provide me with a response to my grievance, and I was prepared.  I didn’t realize it was a hearing, and HR was there.

For this I was not prepared.  Thrown off guard, I collected my thoughts for a few seconds, and began by telling Beloved Boss what she meant to me.  How she had been my mentor, role model, big sister and friend.  How I didn’t want to report to anyone else in the organization  How this was painful for both of us.  I talked about how the HR process is antagonistic and dehumanizing — for everyone involved — and that although I was upset and the grievance was written as if it were directed towards her, I didn’t really know who I was upset with, or who I was grieving (the CEO? HR administration?).  She owned that it had all been her decisions.

This suprised and saddened me, given her sheepish, apologetic “they’re making me do this” demeanor in our previous conversations but I figured maybe she had to say this in front of HR.  I continued, laying out the basics of what I remembered from my grievance letter, since I hadn’t brought anything or anyone with me.  I still thought I was having a dialogue, and tried clarifying and asking questions.  The meeting turned into her grievance.  She was angry with me for calling the change in reporting a “demotion” and said going to the community was “a mistake”.  I told her I needed to get support and perspective and pointed out that at least I didn’t go within the organization — she said I had (the medical school folks).  She was angry about me making it look like she didn’t care or wasn’t committed.  I tried to explain the difference between intent and impact and that I wasn’t questioning intent, but that this decision can and will have negative impact. She was angry with me for suggesting she could have invited dialogue about my piercing instead of ignoring it or disciplining me, and she told me I should have had a dialogue with her before doing it — that there is a process.  I talked about processes not always working, and that sometimes people breaking rules is what causes change (I didn’t say this, but the Lovings just went and got married instead of spending years petitioning the courts to make interracial marriage legal, and Rosa Parks just “sat her Black ass down” [not my words] instead of heading for downtown Montgomery to lobby for equal seating on buses!).  I talked about leadership versus management and that I felt I demonstrated the former.  I didn’t tell her one of the reasons I didn’t tell her or consult with her beforehand was because I didn’t want to implicate her in a decision that was my own to make.

I could feel her, the situation, and our relationship passing through my fingers like sand that I tried to grasp as it followed gravity.  I talked about this sitation having a broader context that needed to be considered, like the context of inconsistent accountability in the organization.  She disagreed.  She said “no, this is about YOU.”  I talked about us having co-created the situation together.  She disagreed.  She said “this is on YOU.”

This was not the Beloved Boss I knew.  I don’t know why I said “thank you” when it was over and I left her office — for the last time I’d later learn.  The one thing that felt positive was her admitting that indeed the combination of the discipline, title change withdrawal and demotion “looked bad.”  But it will take me years to forget her face during that meeting — angry and wanting to yell at me, sad and close to tears, eyes full of disappointment and betrayal.  These were eyes that used to light up,  smile, laugh and bathe me in warmth.  I felt like my lover and I had just split after an ugly, avoidable quarrel.  I felt sad, disappointed, and shocked.  I hurt.  I doubted myself.  Had I done wrong after all? Was she right?

They (she) had two weeks to respond in writing to my grievance.  In the meantime, I was realizing that New Boss was not a good fit for me.  Her style was more controlling, mothering, and directive than I felt comfortable with.  I could see I was not going to be treated like a professional, and that we were going to end up having it out at some point.

I had set a goal to be out by July.  I felt that gave me enough time to be sufficiently prepared — psychologically and financially — to be out on by own.  Originally I’d been eyeing May when I told Beloved Boss in February I was planning to leave, but things had changed.  And now my goal each day was to avoid quitting.  Things had truly disintegrated.  The smoke was getting thicker and the water even hotter.

After hours on the day of the deadline, a Tuesday, I received an email from Beloved Boss requesting an extension to respond.  I said no problem and thank you.  I was heartened.  Maybe they needed extra time to do the necessary paperwork in HR to grant my request!

Or maybe they needed time for their lawyers to look things over first.  The following Monday May 14th, also after hours, I received the two-page written response.  Reading it made my abdomen tense up, my chest and arms turn icy hot, and my brain go numb.  Not only was my request denied, Beloved Boss asked me to “sincerely consider [my] ability to resume in a management capacity” given that my commitment to the organization had been affected.  She cited the fact I had communicated with people in the community about my discipline which “casted [sic] doubt on the [organization’s] commitment” to diversity, and the minutes from the aforementioned community meeting, which could be considered retaliation and grounds for future discipline.

How the hell did she get those minutes, which I had not sent out yet?

Bu that wasn’t all — the summary of the hearing, based on the notes she and the HR representative took — misconstrued my words and left out key points.  It stated I had taken no responsibility for my actions, and “continue to blame a ‘bad policy'”, which wasn’t true.

This was definitely a breakup letter.  It was definitely over.  I hurt all over again, and had a hard time grasping what was happening.  The emails and text messages flew.  I got support and indignation from my allies (“WHAT?!” and “they don’t have enough to fire you, get them to give you a nice severance package to shut you up”), but nothing soothed my heart.

On Wednesday I tried one more time.  I’d considered one colleague’s suggestion on how I could try negotiating a severance.  I didn’t believe that would fly, and the idea of me just carrying on with work if they refused me made my guts turn.  I clung to the idea that Beloved Boss had been unable to be real with me with the HR rep in our meeting — maybe she could be more of her old self if we didn’t have an audience!  Perhaps I could try a more “power with” tactic since going along with the “power over/against” process was not working nor feeling good for anyone.  I’m a mediator for Chrissake!  So I researched, then proposed we go to mediation.  I wrote her: “I feel like I’m not being heard or understood, and it seems you feel the same way.  Perhaps in a confidential, safe environment we can really talk to each other and come to some agreement on the best way to move forward.  Are you open to a mediation with me?”

She forwarded my email (to the lawyers? HR? CEO?) then responded she was “not interested in going through mediation” and said if I didn’t agree with the grievance, I could proceed to Step II.  Step II was to appeal to the CEO or HR Administrator.  I knew either would be as open and supportive as a brick wall on fire on the other side of a moat filled with demon alligators.  No thank you.

And so I pressed on, biding my time.  I contemplated getting a lawyer and realized this would take more out of me than the organization, even if I won, and I was not going to get what I really wanted — understanding and fairness.  In the meantime, Toxic Employee had filed another lengthy, detailed, crazy grievance against me for retaliation (I was still expecting her to work her full hours and follow rules).  Also, my performance evaluation date came and went.  New Boss said Beloved Boss (BB) was going to do it, and she was out that week.  New Boss said she had no doubt I would pass.  I doubted that was true.  I began to think maybe something who knew The Bigger Picture was loudly trying to tell me to leave, and maybe I should just listen.

I talked with my administrative assistant and New Boss about how ex-Beloved Boss (BB) had gotten a hold of those minutes.  My administrative assistant said New Boss (who she also supported) had asked her for them.  I explained why I was asking — that they had gotten to BB and were being used in an unhelpful way — and problem solved about how to handle the communication going forward.  When I talked to New Boss about it, it turned out she’d also wanted to discuss them with me, since she’d been listening to the tape (!?) and also had concerns.  I told her I hadn’t wanted to involved her in the situation between me and BB, but that my words were being misconstued and taken out of context.  I shared a little about my piercing and if I’m forced to choose between the organization and the community, and the organization and my integrity or reputation, I know where I stand.  I talked about BB not wanting to own her part, and that she’s angry because I’m not ashamed or afraid and I set boundaries.   I felt yucky being this honest, but it was good for me.  New Boss seemed to listen, and asked about my commitment and whether I could get on board.  I was flabbergasted that she was actually asking this question and thought I could be.  I said no, and that I would be leaving soon.  I told her that since I told her in December I’d started looking, I’d only stopped looking briefly when the title change emerged.  She thanked me for being honest.

It was Friday of the following week that I resigned and gave three weeks’ notice.  I still had not received my performance appraisal, and the retaliation grievance filed by Toxic Employee was still not resolved.  It felt like we had all been under water holding our breath in some twisted contest to see who would give, and I bobbed to the surface first.  That lungful of air felt so good to my lungs.

New Boss read the two-page letter and cried — she had seen me in my element and called me a “rockstar” just the day before.  She was most concerned about New Employee.  She was also concerned about how the community would react.  She wanted time to build a relationship with them, and to craft a message.  I asked who “community” was (I think she said local external contacts).  I agreed to her request to hold off on communicating my departure to them until she and I could meet again Tuesday morning.  I reminded her that some community folks already knew, since I’d been talking to them.  Yet again she thanked me for my honesty.

On Monday I sent an email to multiple national colleagues informing them of my imminent departure.  I included a line about having “revived my former company and will be pursuing client and projects that are a better fit for my talents.”  The email recipients included a listserv which BB was on — I knew this but didn’t think I was dong anything inappropriate.

On Tuesday I rolled into the office late after informing a crowd of 10-12 students in gray scrubs smoking not 15 feet from the entrance that they were too close to the building. I suggested that maybe no one had told them, pointed out the smoking area on yonder side of the parking lot, and quietly fumed over yet one more example of the insanity of the place.

I went into my meeting with New Boss at 9:30 with a one-and a half-page list of single spaced bullet points describing all the most crucial items to be discussed and handed off in my transition.  We talked a little about this and that for a few minutes.  I asked about how we should communicate my leaving to my staff.  She suggested I send an email that day.  I was surprised — shouldn’t we do a meeting?  No, she said, actually today would be my last day.

W … T … F???   Why wasn’t this the first thing we talked about?  Was she trying to get all the important transition information from me before telling me?

Apparently the email I’d sent the day before was “concerning” and “cast doubt on the commitment” of the organization.   Two people at the medical school were included on the listserv I’d copied.  Oh yeah.  I’d truly forgotten about that.  (But wait, aren’t medical school people considered part of the organization and not the community? That’s what BB said in my hearing.)

I did what I tend to do in these situations — freeze and caretake.  My mind started blanking out.  We decided to cancel a meeting I was supposed to chair that afternoon.  New Boss stuck her head out of her door to ask our administrative assistant to send out an email.  I thought that was odd, since I was going to do that as soon as I went to my office.  I talked about having to complete two employee performance appraisals.  She said she didn’t know what time my computer access would be shut down, so if I didn’t get to it, she’d pick up.

OMG!  I finally got it, this was happening! Now.

I asked her to put her offer to pay me through the period of my resignation in writing.  She said “you don’t trust me?”  (Really!?)  About halfway through my list she said her heart was racing (from the overwhelm) — not a good thing for a morbidly obese person.  I touched her and gently  said something I’d wanted to say to her for a long time: “You also deserve to be happy and healthy.”  Wiping away a tear, and without pausing, she said “I have two kids in college.”

Wow.

We’d agreed to meet again 1:00 to go over and visit the staff together.  As soon as I got to my office I executed Emergency Escape Plan.  I sent two emails I’d composed and been holding in “drafts” for weeks.  One to internal folks, one to external folks, saying goodbye and providing my contact information and website address (just activated the day before in fact).  On the external email I included the line about “better fit for my talents” and on the internal one I added “values” after “talents” and a line about “I find myself unable to effect meaningful change, or lead with integrity, given the organization’s current culture and priorities.”  I felt people had a right to get a personal goodbye and hear at least a tiny part of the truth. I didn’t want to leave people in the lurch or feeling abandoned.  I also composed an email to my staff, letting them know I was leaving and that the abruptness was not my preference.  I thanked them for this and that, wished them well, reminded them of the crucialness of their work and asked them to keep asking the tough questions and holding their leaders accountable.

New Boss appeared in my doorway.  I don’t remember what she said, but she was upset about the emails I’d sent (?!) — something about making her look bad.  I genuinely asked “why?” and she said “because I’m your boss!”  I threw up my hands and made a gesture like “what did you expect!?”.  She had me shut down my computer and pack up my things.  I was prepared — as part of Emergency Escape Plan I had been preparing to leave for weeks, just like I prepared to leave my ex-husband almost exactly ten years before.  Important files, my books, other effects, were already at home.  I had cleaned up my computer drives too, after those meeting minutes got to BB.  Now I just had one more bag to fill with my desk toys, and my artwork and lamps to take down.

I drove my car up; got in a few hugs to a couple bewildered staff; loaded up, handed over my badge, keys, pager, and parking permits; single-arm hugged New Boss — whose face was like a silent scream — and said “until we meet again.” I drove away, free.  By that time my computer and email access had already been revoked, and the emails I had sent had been retracted from those who hadn’t opened them yet (I have since sent a pile of messages from my personal email).  They tried to take away not only my leaving, but how I left and who I told.  But I was free.

***

I am going to be processing this story for a long time.  Even just writing it now has been difficult, and a rollercoaster of emotion.  It still doesn’t feel entirely real, and my fired-up brainstem hasn’t completely relaxed yet.  It’s almost like a dream.  I am relieved to be free of Toxic Employee and the majority of my job.  But I do miss some things.  I miss New Employee.  I miss structure.  I miss reliable money and power and my ego being stroked.  But these are things I can live without, and things that were twisting me anyway.  And New Employee and I will still be friends.

What is interesting and disturbing to me is how few people have been outraged by my story.  People who know my organization — or even work there — are sometimes slightly disappointed, but not surprised.  Others who don’t know my organization, but know the corporate world, often have their own, similar stories.  The normalcy of this is disturbing — the banality of evil rears its head once again (see post on The White Ribon 12/19/11).  I have been reading a couple wonderful books lately on power that I will be writing about soon and one of them — Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times — suggests that one thing that causes certain people to stand alone and do the “right” or “moral” thing (e.g., breaking the law and risking one’s life to save Jews during Nazism) is actually believing in the stated ideals of a nation or organization.  Perhaps it’s not naïveté or blind idealism that make me tend to believe that people and organizations and nations actually mean to be who they say they are, and hold them to that.  Maybe it’s just about integrity, and a good trait.  Perhaps belief is subversive when apathy is the norm, and numbness the new evil.  Perhaps we need more believers, and more outrage, and more feeling.

Still, I have learned a lot.  If I had it to do over again, I like to think I would have left earlier before it got ugly, or turned down the offer of the title change and stayed on a path out.  I like to think I could have done something to preserve the relationship with BB and leave on good terms.

And maybe things happened exactly the way they had to for me, and for her as well.  Who knows what repercussions this story will have on how things play out moving forward.  I hope me taking a stand pushes the organization and change forward, raises important questions, or inspires others to be better, happier, healthier, and more alive.

I learned that me taking a stand pushed some people away, and others towards me.  I learned I was not alone. I learned I was loved, respected, admired and appreciated even more than I knew.  I learned that when the warning signs start to appear, I should listen instead of bargaining and doubting myself.  I learned that when I’m not listening to the Universe, she starts to speak louder, then shouts and hits me with a 2×4 until I get it.   I learned that I really can’t avoid messes if I’m going to be true to myself more.  I learned I still have some control issues and self love issues to work on.  I learned I need to get in better touch with my anger, sooner.

I learned that in a hierarchical organization, the culture really is driven, and the tone set, by those above.  Despite my insistence on the power of individual agency, ultimately this is the truth.  In an organization headed by a numbers man who is devoutly Catholic, lacking in emotional intelligence, fearful and intolerant of anything perceived as criticism, this orientation trickles down.  New Boss was protecting BB who was protecting him.  Both were afraid and trying to protect their jobs.   BB was copying his pattern of maintaining a small, close inner circle of trusted and protected people who could do no wrong until their “loyalty” came into question — when their toes started pulling back from the party line.  Because I was in BB’s inner circle (of which I was not aware), I was seen as even more of a traitor and punished even more harshly than someone not as close or trusted — like White allies during Civil Rights and light skinned “half breeds” in Indian boarding schools.

Also, I’ve realized that in a hierarchical “power over” institution, those above are always under someone else, with Almighty God being the Ultimate Boss.  Fear, compliance and control are the drivers.  And in a “power over” paradigm all manifestations of power are interpreted through that lense.  So those who exercise other forms of power — like “power with”” or power within”– are not recognized as such, but as players in a “power over” game trying to win and dominate others.  In making decisions true to myself, being honest, and raising questions, I was perceived as trying to assert “power over” and therefore neutralized as a threat instead of being recognized and engaged.

But more on power later.

While this is the end of this particular saga, I don’t know that I’m quite a Jedi knight.  🙂   But I am happily “single” and safe.  I swim in healthy, comfortable water.  And I can breathe again.  Hallelujah.

What came up for you as you read this post?  Insights or feedback?

Ometéotl!

~Jaxsine~

Knowing when to leave

It’s all right, honey. Let her go. Let her go. You know, Miss Ruth was a lady. And a lady  always knows when to leave.

This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies, Fried Green Tomatoes.  Sipsey utters these lines at the moment the saintly kind-hearted Ruth dies, leaving Idgie alone again.  It usually makes me bawl.

But it has also made me wonder, for years, how to know when to leave.  How do I not possess Ruth’s grace and wisdom?  The truth is, it’s a tough call to make, especially if one of your virtues/flaws is to focus on the good instead of the bad, despite greater quantity or proportion of the latter.  The truth is also that I usually stay too long.

I have already shared the story of when I knew my bad marriage wasn’t going to get better (12/14/11 post).  The months that followed were a terrifying gift of staying in a dangerous, destructive relationship while quietly planning my escape.  It was excruciating not being fully able to speak the truth or leave, but the blessing was getting almost daily validation of why I had to get out.  It made my final exit less conflicted.

I feel like that now, but unlike with my marriage, I don’t have a specific deadline to rely on.  Towards the end of my marriage, I had graduate school in another state to plan for and provide an escape.  This time, with my job, it’s not so concrete.

But there are lots of parallels between the two.  How is my current bad job situation like my previous bad marriage situation?

  • I got what I said I wanted — but I wasn’t thinking carefully through  the long term requirements or commitment.
  • I didn’t want to tell myself, or anyone else, the truth about my feelings.
  • Once I finally started talking, however, I got understanding and empathy from others.
  • All it takes is one really bad day to make me want to leave — my loyalty and overall satisfaction are that fragile.
  • All it takes is one decent day to make me think it’s not so bad or it’s finally getting better … until the awfulness starts again and I realize the good day was just a respite.
  • There’s very little joy.  Good days are about the absence of significant conflict or drama, and satisfaction from having completed a certain number of tasks.
  • I give more than the other.  The other can’t, or isn’t ready or able, to change or give more.

I have been aware of these ironic parallels for some time, but recently I have had two additional realizations (which are also like what happened in my marriage).  One — those I loved are either changing or I am seeing them more clearly.  Two — I am changing too, and I don’t like what I am becoming.

My first inkling of changes or shattered illusions began when my colleagues didn’t say anything about my nose piercing.  Then my Beloved Boss didn’t say anything.  Then she came down hard on me, and later expressed feeling awkward about bringing it up — a management 101 skill in my book.  Then she suddenly offered me the one thing I always wanted, when I was already halfway out the door.  Then she got on one of my colleagues (my soon-to-be New Boss) about something I was working on instead of asking me about it, which was a new experience for me with her.

Meanwhile, my soon-to-be New Boss scheduled a meeting with me which I discovered (in the meeting) was about clearing the air about a few things before she became my boss (as if we could be completely honest and ignore the impending power shift).  I was completely unaware of her concerns, one of which was thinking I needed something from her when my Beloved Boss was getting on her about the aforementioned project I was working on.  (I still don’t entirely get that one.)

Another of her concerns was that something I told Toxic Employee got back to her (why did I trust Toxic Employee with that?).  I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have told Toxic Employee what I did, because I still believe soon-to-be New Boss made a bad decision and set me (or whoever would come after her) up for failure by not being honest with Toxic Employee about her poor performance.  I didn’t tell Toxic Employee the truth, even though I wanted to very badly, but I did imply her previous bosses hadn’t been entirely honest with her.  I was trying to give her a bigger picture that painted me as less the lone bad guy out to get her, and more the person trying to deal with a tough situation and do the right thing.  I was trying to show fairness and empathy with her shock and indignation, since she had been led to believe she had been a stellar employee for ten years until I came around.  The illusion she had been sold was hurting both of us — and the entire department — and I was trying yet another way to give perspective and make things better.  I guess it didn’t work, and she told soon-to-be New Boss what I’d said, with her own spin.

I received a message almost two years ago that “leadership is more than what most of the leaders around you, even the good ones, are doing.”  I couldn’t fathom this at the time because I adored Beloved Boss and soon-to-be New Boss (one of my mentors), but now I get it.  The two people I have most loved, trusted, and respected at work are not entirely the great leaders I thought they were.

I suddenly see The Matrix before me.  Beloved Boss contributes to The Problem.  She hasn’t always been direct with me about what she has needed from me, or in asking me to change or do something differently.  She didn’t go to bat for me when it mattered until it was too late.  She said yes to being given more and more responsibility for projects and functions outside her purview — with no title change or extra compensation, and to an extent that will hurt her other areas.  She allows her competence and skill to be exploited to make up for others’ (mostly men’s) incompetence and lack of planning.  She exploits soon-to-be New Boss’s competence and responsiveness instead of holding her colleagues accountable.  She sometimes says yes when she should say no — or sometimes she says nothing, which is the same as yes.

Soon-to-be New Boss also contributes to The Problem.  She allowed gross neglect and incompetence to go on for years in the area I inherited because she never had reason for concern (and I guess never had reason to even check).  She also allows her competence and skill to be exploited to make up for others’ under-functioning.  She enables her reports’ incompetence and irresponsibility by taking on their decisions for them and keeping their failures from showing (which keeps her from looking bad, but does not lead to growth or efficiency).  She doesn’t understand why our sister organizations say they don’t want to be like us.  She also says yes sometimes, when she should say no.

Both of these women have been in the organization for about 25 years.  They are outstanding people — and part of The Solution — but I now see they have not been immune to their environment.  They have grown up in a dysfunctional culture and have a tolerance for things they wouldn’t otherwise.  They don’t know any different.  Both allow their priorities to be manipulated by the latest regulatory freakout or demand from a superior without questioning or taking a stand (it seems).   Both appear to make pleasing their bosses top priority always, despite what suffers as a result.  Both allow themselves to be handed an impossible amount of work, which keeps them in a perpetual state of overwhelm, attending primarily to ugliness and urgent problems instead of mindfully building and nuturing people and programs.  Reaction over prevention isn’t their personal preference, but it is the reality of how they operate.

And both have told me my standards are (too) high.  My standards are not too high, I believe they are reasonable and good.  I don’t think keeping employee files locked up, doing decent performance evaluations, keeping accurate records, answering emails within a couple days, confronting problems head on and keeping one’s word are unreasonable standards, they are part of The Solution.   Perhaps I am like the frog put into boiling water — I jump right out when I sense right away it’s too hot and dangerous.  They are like the frogs put in water that has slowly been heated (over 25 years), and now they are (un)happily boiling to death.

Illusions are deadly — deciding someone or something is bad keeps us from seeing goodness, and deciding someone or something is good keeps us from seeing faults and failings.  Neither is fair or accurate.   Seeing through illusions can be painful and costly; now that I am seeing the Matrix, I feel more vulnerable and alone, without allies.  I see again my own failing to be entirely balanced in my assessment of people, tending instead to either blindly trust or entirely write off — like I did with my ex-husband (first the former tendency, then the latter).  It’s almost amusing how I fall prey to the same dichotomous either-or thinking I often rail against.

And hope can be dangerous.  Hope enables human beings to survive horrible circumstances and overcome tremendous odds.  But it can also keep us stuck in an illusion.  Holding on to the flickering possibility of change or good can keep us trapped in something mostly bad. This is tempting, since nothing is ever all good or all bad.  Holding on can lead to genius or breakthrough or triumph, but it can also lead to disaster and ruin and tragic waste.

Perhaps my doubts about knowing when to leave are really about my fear of being wrong.  I can stay and see things stay bad or get worse, and then I will be wrong about staying.  Or I can leave and see things improve, and then I will be wrong about leaving.  I just can’t know what will happen.

What I do know is I should not make choices counting on certain outcomes.  Besides, me making the choice and taking action changes the outcome — my decision shapes the future.  What I also know is that I do not like how I am changing, and what I have become.  I’ve noticed I’m not really a frog jumping out of the boiling water — I’m trying to swim in it, and my delicate skin is burning.

The fact that I would consider lying to get a coveted job title is not a good sign.  The fact I would violate confidence and tell Toxic Employee that soon-to-be New Boss wasn’t honest with her is not a good sign.  The chronic bags under my eyes that defy all beauty remedies are not a good sign.  My exhaustion even after only working eight hours is not a good sign.  It’s not a good sign that I have actually uttered the words “I hate my job” more than once.  The other things I hear coming out of my mouth to one of my new employees is not a good sign.  The subtle negativity, the undertone of anger, the ultra-political sensitivities and cautious maneuvering — these are not good signs.

In two months, New Employee has been showered with the appreciation, curious inquiries, and positive responses I have yet to receive in 18 months in my new role.  I recently read over the many wonderful comments I used to get all the time when I was doing what I love and am truly gifted in doing.  I remembered what it was like, and saw even more clearly when I compared myself to New Employee, that my unhappiness and lack of fit isn’t just hurting me — it’s hurting my effectiveness, and my ability to create positive change.

If everything we do is truly infused with the consciousness with which we do it, then me staying and forcing myself to make potentially positive changes in the organization is likely being cancelled out by my attitude and how I go about things.  Maybe I have taken von Goethe’s advice — “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being” — too much to heart.  Maybe I really am going too much against the grain, pushing too hard, or expecting too much.

In this way I still wonder, is it me, or the organization?  Can I still do good?  Is there sufficient hope?  I was curious to find some rational data — some objective evidence to provide some clarity or insight.  So I looked up “dysfunction” in the dictionary to see if my organization qualified.  The dictionary said “malfunctioning”, so I looked up “functional.”  The second definition was “having or serving a utilitarian purpose; capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed.”  This seemed like a good definition, but it struck me that folks in my organization would disagree about the proper definitions of “utilitarian”, “capable” and especially “purpose.”  Personally, I see multiple examples every day of how the organization is not serving its purpose, and lack of clarity around what (whose!) purpose it was/is really designed for.

Maybe the key word is “capable”?  Maybe my standards are too high and my expectations unrealistic in this environment.  And maybe I just don’t agree that the status quo is the best we can do.  Maybe I can still see that things don’t have to be the way they are — that there is A Solution (probably more than one).  Maybe I believe we can actually change things — that A Solution is doable.

And maybe my beliefs are moot.  Just like I believed my now ex-husband was capable of change, he just wasn’t willing or able.  And I got to a point where I realized I wasn’t willing or able to function inside that reality anymore — regardless of how that reality might be viewed or labeled by others, and regardless of how hard I tried.   And while that point is coming again, it doesn’t feel like it’s fully arrived.

So when should I leave?  Perhaps like Ruth, I will know when it’s time.

In lak ech,

~Jaxsine~

She (finally) brought me flowers

Three weeks ago at work, I was offered something I’d asked for more than once over the last several months.  A new title.

This may seem like a minor detail, but the truth is it matters to me.  It matters to me because I have been doing a job equivalent to those with the higher title in my organization.  It matters to me because I deserve it.  It matters to me because I don’t want to be one more woman who sells herself short or accepts less than she has earned in the workplace.  And it matters to me because titles make a difference in my organization.  I wish it weren’t true, but it is, and a higher title that better reflects the reach and importance of what I do is one more way to lend legitimacy to the Office I have created.

But it was bittersweet.  I had asked my Beloved Boss for this title before, making it clear I didn’t need or want a raise in pay, but that the title meant a lot to me.  And she finally offered it to me during the same meeting where I explained about my piercing and apologized for how I realized my choice had affected her (see Breaking the rules — Part III post on 2/27/12).  She said the title change “had finally come through” and that she could offer it to me if I stayed.  If I didn’t stay, I would keep my current title and the job would be posted in the new title for the next person.

WTF.

I’m not very good in interpersonal crises.  When it comes to an earthquake, natural disaster, or other physical threat, you definitely want me around with my level head, clear thinking and assertive responses.  But when I am confronted with a relational problem, I usually either go into empathize-with-the-other mode, or I freeze.

So in the moment I said I understood and would think about it, but later it didn’t make sense.  Why, as one of the most powerful people in the organization, “couldn’t” she change my title if I still planned to leave?  Why did it “finally” come through, right after I said I was leaving and was being called on the carpet for having a nose piercing?

And why did my HR recruiter, when I spoke to her later by phone about something else, express sympathy about me leaving?  I was suprised and alarmed.  I asked how she knew, and she said “I work in HR.”

WTF?

It started to dawn on me that my Beloved Boss might not have been entirely honest with me.  My new title hadn’t suddenly come through, she had pushed it through to keep me.  And she was using the one thing I wanted to entice me to stay.

So the fact I am unhappy and the job isn’t a fit don’t matter.  The two conversations I had with her last fall about getting close to reaching my limits and needing help hadn’t mattered.  She had waited until I was done and walking out the door to try and retain me.  And she offered me money and power instead of a solution to the problem.

Not only that, she also told me that she would likely be handing me off to one of her other reports — one of my peers (but with an even higher title than me) who had been my mentor.  She just couldn’t manage with some new responsibilities she had been given from higher ups, and had to delegate.  Soon-to-be New Boss is one of the few people I respect and trust, but also one of the most overwhelmed and overworked people in the organization, and the person who had been ultimately responsible for the (severely neglected and chaotic) department I had inherited last summer.

So one hand giveth and the other taketh away.  I was offered the title I always wanted on a condition of staying in a job I had made clear was a bad fit and making me miserable and ill.  And I was being told I would no longer report to my Beloved Boss, who was one of the three things I liked about my job, and she knew it.

So now I had a dilemma.  Do I stick with my integrity and leave anyway?  Or do I stay when I don’t want to, to get what I wanted and deserved?  Stewing over this dichotomy as I got into the shower that night, I asked myself indignantly, “How would they know, if I said I’m staying, that I actually will?  I could be lying to them to get what I want!”  And then I realized this was a third option.

I was troubled that I even considered this to be a viable possibility.  One part of me counseled me to rise above, to take the high road, to focus on the spiritual and what’s truly important in life — getting out despite what I might lose in the process.  It encouraged me to let the petty issue of the title go.  But another part of me — the freedom fighter and suffragette — reminded me that countless oppressed people have used that approach to accept defeat and less than they earned, and feel like good, righteous people for doing so.

Oh HELL to the no!!

So I thought about what I could do and say to get what I wanted and earned, yet stay in integrity.  I wasn’t willing to compromise integrity; I don’t believe in selling my soul to play The Game.  I wondered about a middle way — a third option besides “OK I’ll take it and stay — you win” or “take this job and shove it — I win, your loss … suckas!”?

As before, I enjoyed the brainstorming help of a smart, trusted friend and came up with a plan.  The following week I met with my Beloved Boss and told her I’d thought about it, and I appreciated the offer and confidence the organization had in me.  I talked about how this title will make a difference for the program, regardless of who has it.  I said I didn’t know how I would feel moving forward, but that I had faith the new title and the hiring of a supervisor to help me out would make a difference.  I said I could say for sure that I am willing to give it a try, and that having the new title would keep me longer than I would have stayed without it.  If that was acceptable to her, than I would accept.

She said that was acceptable.  She said one never knows, and I would have to do what was in my heart.  She was glad I was staying.

She brought me flowers, and I put them in water in a vase.  I wonder how long they’ll last.

***

POST SCRIPT

Since I originally wrote this piece a few days ago, I have been presented with a written proposal to suspend me for three days without pay because of the nostril piercing.  (When I accepted the offer of the new title, I was told no disciplinary action would be taken if I were leaving, but since I was staying, a verbal warning would suffice.)  Oh … and the new title is being withheld for now, pending the outcome of the proposed disciplinary action.  Leaders who are being disciplined should not be rewarded, of course.

Beloved Boss is fighting for me and has my back on this one, but … the flowers are wilting …

In lak ech,

~Jaxsine~

Breaking the rules – Part III (The Empire Strikes Back?)

Those of you who are fellow card-carrying lifelong diehard Star Wars fans might point out that The Empire Strikes Back was actually the second (well, really the fifth!) Star Wars movie in the first trilogy and not the third, and you would be correct.  So why, you ask, would I name the third installment of this particular saga after the second installment of said Star Wars saga?  Answer: the title of this post is appropriate given what has transpired since Part II, and because in the trilogy formula, the second act is usually the darkest and most conflicted, as is this one.

Just days after I wrote Part II, and perhaps even because of the energy behind that post – or in spite of it – I got my first message that my piercing had been noticed and that I was, well, on notice.  After climbing the stairs and reaching the top of the parking structure on my way out that afternoon, I ran into one of my main allies in HR.  She and I had exchanged friendly words in another parking structure the week before, nose jewelry in full view, so I didn’t expect anything different this time.  As we parted, however, she mentioned — almost as an afterthought, and almost apologetically — that she had noticed my nose piercing, that it’s against policy, and if someone complained she would have to bring it to my boss.

I’m not sure what she expected (defensiveness? indignance?) but I politely said I understood, I realized it was against policy, and I thanked her for saying something.  Her stock rose in my personal Market of Integrity.  Finally someone was doing their job.  Finally someone had the guts to speak up!

But … what was this about “if” someone complained?  So I get to break the rules as long as no one complains about it?  I’m OK as long as I get away with it?

Apparently so, because a couple days later — again as almost an afterthought at the end of our regular hour-long weekly meeting — my boss mentioned that she got an “anonymous complaint” about my nose piercing, and that she said she’d address it.  There was no request to remove it, no statement of consequences and no question, so I assumed this “addressing” was the equivalent of saying “I see you.”

The following day in a follow up meeting I made the brave, premeditated move of telling my boss I was planning to leave the organization, citing unhappiness, lack of fit, and a desire to return to doing work that truly expresses my gifts — even perhaps as a contractor for the organization.  I told her I wasn’t giving notice yet, and that I wanted to be honest with her because our relationship is very important to me.  I told her it was hard for me to admit how I was feeling, since I didn’t want to disappoint or abandon her.  I said I intended to not leave my department in disarray.  It felt like a good meeting.  She heard me, said she knows I’m loyal, and just asked me not to leave things in chaos.  That was a hard day of three very honest meetings and lots of boundary setting.  It was epic.

You see, my boss is one of the three things I like about my job.  And I love this woman as a person — she is the one individual I would want to report to in my organization and one of the few I not only admire and respect, but like.

The following week, on Valentines Day, we had our regular weekly one-on-one.  It was a normal meeting, mostly me going over all my projects.   I followed up later that day with an email regarding two things I forgot, and in her reply my boss mentioned she had gotten another inquiry about my piercing and that I needed to remove it as I was not in compliance with policy.

So now we were in the Realm of Direct Communication and Danger of Defiance Zone.  What to do?

A day later I responded that I appreciated her saying something, but that there was a story behind it I wanted to explain.  I said I would not be asking for special treatment or to be allowed an exception to the policy.  I asked — is that OK?  She wrote back that several people were now commenting and questioning her, and that we could talk, but that I had to remove it that day or face disciplinary action.

Whoa.  I realized I had not expected that reaction, nor to face that kind of clear dilemma.  I spent that day, and the next, sort of out-of-body at work, but with facial jewelry intact.  Then the weekend came.

I realized I needed help figuring out what to do.  Do I back down on my commitment?  Sell out? Submit to oppression and injustice?  Defy my beloved boss? Risk burning bridges?  Make a big deal?

I was also angry and suspicious that the hammer had come down on me right after saying I was unhappy and planning to leave.  Could it be possible that my boss was pulling tightly on my reins just because I was trying to break free?

In seeking wise counsel from trusted friends (thank God(dess) for such gifts as friends!) I learned two things.  One, my Beloved Boss is human, and as a human she probably — albeit subconsciously — was sad and upset I was leaving and found it easier to deal with the grief and loss (after all I have been her ally and confidant too) by getting angry with me and exerting her authority.  After all, screaming “FINE!  Go on and go, you %&*$-ing #^*$!” after your loved one as they exit the house with packed bags in hand feels a lot better and more powerful than bursting into tears and facing the silent, ambiguous emptiness left in their wake.

Two, I learned I had been selfish.  I hadn’t fully played out the scenario of her reaction to the piercing in my mind, but I had assumed it would consist of her noticing and asking me about it goodnaturedly, maybe teasingly telling me I was going to have to take it out, me explaining my reasons and her totally getting it, then negotiating some resolution with me or asking me to take it out, citing some really good reason I had never thought of before.  OR!  Maybe she would even join me in my commitment, let it go, and tell the concerned parties to go focus on more important things like ensuring our patients get the safest, quickest, most respectful care imaginable, and keeping stellar employees happy and feeling supported.

What I had missed is that my Beloved Boss likely sees herself as constrained in her role as I do, if not more.  Allowing me to walk around with a tiny jewel on the side of my nose undermines her authority.  It implies that either I enjoy her favoritism, or that she is powerless to get me to follow The Rules.  I had not considered that my actions would put her in an awkward position that hurt her credibility — credibility I respected and had worked hard to protect.

So I went back to the studio and got a clear glass retainer put in, which is actually healing a lot better now than the jewelry was.  I didn’t do it because I backed down from my commitment, or because I am weak.  I didn’t do it out of fear.  I did it out of love — love for my Beloved Boss and what she represents, as well as who she is.  I did it out of respect for how difficult her job must be, and how she will be the one left behind when I leave, continuing the lonely fight to do the right thing.

One of my friends also pointed out that this decision could also be about me letting go of being right.  I had never thought of myself as insisting on being right since I’m the type of person who meets disagreement or conflict with dialogue and a sincere attempt to come to a mutually beneficial solution.  However, I hadn’t considered my righteous commitment to an ideal or principle despite all consequences as having undertones of insisting on being right or superior.

The following week at our meeting my boss and I had a candid conversation.  Indeed, she had been annoyed with me.  I was surprised to hear it’s awkward for her to bring up dress code issues with staff (I assumed this would have been old hat for someone who started out as a front line staff person and supervisor).  I suspect she felt extra hurt it was me — of all people — she had to address this with.  I’m the Teacher’s Pet after all, so my apparent defiance must have really stung.  I realized I have no idea what kind of pressures and challenges to her authority she must face, and how I put that in jeopardy.

She heard my reasons (I gave the main ones), listened to my explanation (no intention to be defiant of her initial “addressing it”) and accepted my apology.  I don’t think she fully understands why I did it — after all, she has spent nearly 30 years in the organization and has grown up in the culture — but I hope she still believes I’m loyal, at least to her.

I suppose this is a part of pushing the envelope and breaking rules — sometimes it doesn’t have an effect on anyone but us.  It can sometimes be as much about our own psychological development and spiritual awakening as anyone else’s.  Through this process, I certainly have learned a lot more about people and this organization — as well as reminders about why it doesn’t work for me.  Most people really don’t think on the level of metaphors and philosophy and ethics and big principles.  It’s really about relationships — and safety.  And that’s not a bad thing.

Ultimately then, I have gone through another trial, grown, and come back to share my new knowledge.  So perhaps a more apt title for this post after all would have been … Return of the Jedi?  🙂

In Lak Ech … paz, amor y sabiduria

Jaxsine

Breaking the rules – Part II

Today it’s been a month, and you may be wondering — what happened with my first daring foray into being authentic and breaking some rules?

Well, nothing.

I’ve been at work 19 days since I got my nose pierced, a clear violation of the dress code at work, especially for management.  And only TWO people have said anything.  They both said something as soon as they saw me for the first time since the holidays — one was curious and surprised, the other complimentary.  But neither my boss, nor an HR director I met with one-on-one, nor any of my immediate peers, nor my direct reports, have said a thing.

What does this mean?  I’m really not sure.  I can tell most people notice it, but their faces don’t change, nor do they seem uncomfortable.  Maybe they’re really not seeing it.  Maybe they think (as somone at the piercing studio suggested) I always had it.

I think what is more likely is they don’t know what to say, they are afraid to say anything (?), or they have more important things to worry about.  Regardless of the reason, I feel a mix of relief and disappointment.  I’m not disappointed because I’m sad to have missed a chance to make a point or take some big, loud stance.  I’m disappointed because I expected more.  I expected accountability — at least a question — especially from my boss.  That’s what I would have done if someone who reported to me showed up with a nose piercing: “Hey, I see you got some new jewelry there.  Tell me about that?”   Then I would have said something about taking it out at work or (now that I have one) saying it’s against policy but I’m not going to make it an issue.  If the person were a colleague, I would have said something appreciative or at least acknowledging, depending on the person.  Then I might have asked my boss about what I’d seen (“so, did the policy change?”), or gone out and gotten one myself.  🙂

Right now, I interpret the silence as another symptom of dysfunction in the organization.  If we are unable, unwilling, or too stressed out to notice the little things that aren’t right — much less hold each other accountable — then it’s no wonder we have a general lack of consistent accountability and a culture that has streaks of anger, injustice, and righteous entitlement.

It’s odd — even though I didn’t get the piercing to make a point or be a rebel (nor is being a rebel my M.O.), I have found myself oddly emboldened by the lack of reaction.  It almost makes me want to push envelopes I had no intention of signing, sealing and delivering in the first place.  It gives me insight into why (and how) other folks might make such envelope pushing their way of work life, or feel it’s their right to do so.  There are fundamental problems in any system when the line of accountability is blurry, moves around or appears so far down the field that once someone finally calls foul, the foul lacks credibility and evokes indignance or disrespect from the violator.  When certain policies aren’t taken seriously, how do people know which ones are?  I’m not advocating for rigid, consistent application of the letter of all laws, but at least a noticing and dialoguing when people violate  agreements that we implicity or explicitly make with each other.

So today I did Rule Breaking Part II, but not because of the lack of reaction, mind you, this was already part of the plan.  Today, 2-4-12 at age 42 I got my 4th tattoo at 4:00 by a woman with a four-letter name (!).  She did a beautiful job and it didn’t hurt nearly as much as the other three.  I was nervous about this one, but I love it.

And I am not going to cover it up at work when summer comes.

Today is Imbolc — the first day of spring.  It is a day of new life, of new green tendrils poking up through the hard, frozen, sleeping earth.  And as of today I wear another external symbol of my commitment to what is real, what is authentic, and what is important.

In lack ech,

Jaxsine