Tag Archives: workplace

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is not having stuck to my guns when I said I was planning to leave — before I was offered a title change that was later rescinded, before I was disciplined for taking a courageous stand, before my Beloved Boss (and others) got to put me in a box that made them feel justified in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

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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~

How to turn the Head Cheerleader into a High School Dropout (or How to Turn a Bright, Enthusiastic, Self-Motivated Employee into a Disgruntled One: A Guide for Managers)

This is a compilation of my own experience, and that of others I have witnessed or talked to over the last few years.  All of them happen to be women, thus the use of the female pronoun throughout.

Please contribute your own additions by commenting at the end!

  • Don’t give her a realistic picture of the challenges she is about to face in a new or expanded role
  • Transition her quickly into a new or expanded role with little preparation or handoff
  • When changing her reporting structure, do it by just letting her know, instead of in a meeting with all involved parties, with a clear and doable transition plan and timeline
  • Don’t praise her
  • If you do praise her, don’t be specific about what she has done that is praiseworthy — say something vague like “good job!”
  • Hold her to higher standards than her colleagues and rely on her to make up for her colleagues’ inadequacies instead of addressing her colleagues’ inadequacies
  • Hold her accountable for minor infractions or mistakes and ignore others’ major violations
  • Don’t appreciate her for working extra hours on her own or going above and beyond — don’t notice, or just take it for granted
  • Bury her in transactional minutia and the tedium of personnel problems — take away all time to think, study and create
  • Expect her to drop everything at a moment’s notice to please you or meet your priorities, without knowing what else she has going on in her business
  • Tell her what to do, and how
  • Treat her like a child — be a school marm, especially when it comes to things like her clothing, hair, or the appearance of her desk
  • Don’t trust her even though she hasn’t given any sign of untrustworthiness
  • Don’t give her help when she needs and wants it, but give her help when she doesn’t need it and hasn’t asked for it
  • Don’t obtain her the resources necessary for her to do a good (much less excellent) job
  • Say no instead of exploring reasons, pros and cons
  • Pay one of her newly-hired employees almost as much as her
  • Don’t give her feedback on what she can improve
  • If she asks for feedback or doubts her approach or skills, just say “you’re fine”
  • Don’t mentor her — let her learn by making mistakes
  • Don’t call her on inappropriate decisions or behaviors until it’s really bad or people are complaining
  • Punish her for being honest and taking ownership of her mistakes; reward others for not owning their mistakes, lying, or being passive-aggressive … by ignoring them
  • When she does something out of character or suddenly “acts out”, come down hard or discipline her without asking what is going on
  • Treat her like the enemy at the first sign of disagreement or hesitation to toe the party line
  • Take her decisions and mistakes personally
  • Undermine her authority — make decisions and take action without consulting or including her on things within her area of responsibility or expertise
  • Take away the things she loves the most about her job
  • Don’t back her up, especially when the stakes are high
  • Don’t stand up for her to colleagues who are bullies, in the wrong, or focused on the wrong priorities
  • Say good and promising words but don’t back them up with actions
  • Go back on your word
  • Be too overwhelmed and overworked yourself to give her the time and support she needs
  • Be reactive instead of proactive or strategic
  • Focus on profit and bottom line more than people and relationships
  • Focus on pleasing your colleagues or boss over pleasing the customer/patient/community
  • Don’t stand up for fairness and justice — cave to politics
  • Don’t use your power to stand up for good values, sanity, and positive change.  Allow fear to be your primary motivator
  • When she is upset or frustrated, tell her about your problems instead of listening and empathizing, or problem solving
  • When she comes to you with concerns about her job, and ideas for how to solve the problem, don’t do anything about it until she announces she is leaving
  • When she says she is unhappy, thinking of leaving, or has received a better offer, don’t ask “what can I do to change your mind or make you want to stay?”
  • Punish and attempt to discredit her when she’s finally had enough and actually leaves

What would you add to this list?  Please leave a response!

Ometeotl!

~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 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

The Psychology of Sheep

Have you heard the story about the weird chicken? Well, here goes.

There once was a farmer who had a large flock of chickens.  One spring, he noticed one of the new chicks wasn’t quite fitting in,  He didn’t look like the other chicks, he didn’t sound like the other chicks, and he didn’t act like them either.  The chick, as he began to grow up, also noticed something wasn’t right. Try as he might, he couldn’t make himself be like the others.  The other chickens were mostly polite, but they noticed too.  Even the farmer saw that this bird was not turning into a very well-behaved or tasty-looking chicken, and he worried that the other chickens, and his reputation, were in danger because of the weird chicken.

One lovely afternoon a stranger passing by the farm struck up a conversation with the farmer.  The stranger noticed the weird chicken and took an immediate interest in the bird.  He offered to buy it.  The farmer, thinking of no other use for the chicken and seeing the stranger was a bit daft but friendly, agreed.  The stranger took his new feathered friend to the edge of the tallest cliff in the region, held him up high and gave him a little push, saying …

“Fly, eagle, fly!”

And the eagle flew.   Turns out he’d been blown into the chicken yard during a windstorm as a tiny eagle chick.  At first he was terrified and unsure of himself, but eventually he found other eagles.  He rejoined his tribe, happy to fit in at last — fully spreading his wings, hunting rodents and using his sharp beak and talons to their full potential — all things he was meant to do, but discouraged from in the chicken yard.

My guess is that many probably relate to this story and are eagles among chickens looking for their true tribe.  I definitely relate, and made the error most of us make — thinking others are like us.  However, I am now beginning to notice that there are plenty of eagle chicks who would just rather stay with the chickens.

Allow me to explain.  One of the people who reports to me at work was someone I was friendly with for years before I became her boss.  She always seemed to have some kind of struggle.  As the manager of her department she had a really hard time because she had no support from her boss and felt abandoned.  Then she stepped down and took another position in the department.  She confided in me how hard this role was too — no support, no motivation, no inspiration from her bosses — and her colleagues were also hard to work with.  A year ago this month, she cried in my office about how frustrated she was, and how she was thinking of quitting.  At that time I knew plans were in the works for me to take on leadership of her department, so I encouraged her to hang on.  “The organization needs you,” I told her, “You have so much to offer!”  As usual, she was very grateful to me for our trusting relationship and my empathy and support.

I was excited — once she found out I was going to be her boss, she was going to be excited too!  All she needed was some guidance and ideas from someone energetic and organized, with expertise in her field — me!  Together, we were going to do great things!

Four months later the leadership transition was announced in a department meeting.  She was there, and had been briefed days before about the impending changes.  For reasons unclear to me at the time, she quietly left the room at some point during the post-announcement group discussion, unable to “control her reaction” as she later explained.

Since then, this person, who I might have called a friend, has turned out to be the most manipulative, toxic, gossipy, lazy member of the team.  At first I thought it was my fault.  A new manager after all, I thought maybe I was doing something to cause this behavior.  I tried more contact, more structure, more concrete deadlines and clearer accountability.  I experimented with letting some things go and giving freer rein.  Despite lots of help from HR and my mentors, nothing I did seemed to make a difference for long, or at all.  I just really needed her to do her job and was to shocked to discover she wasn’t doing it, and hadn’t been for some time.  The disturbing gaps in her work performance even included things that put us at risk as an organization.

To date, she has been written up twice, suspended once, coached multiple times, and earned a non-passing performance evaluation.  She has contributed excessive absences, low productivity, missed deadlines, lack of follow through, troubling lack of documentation, inappropriate emails, and a number of poor or careless decisions requiring damage control.  Her responses to my efforts to improve her performance have included filing two grievances against me — one with the organization and one with the EEOC — for discriminating against her due to race.

I still believe that people co-create situations and that no one person is ever to blame completely for conflict or interpersonal problems.  Therefore, I know I helped create this situation.  However, I also now believe that I have done nothing wrong.  I am not the racist, demanding, oppressive boss from hell she believes me to be.  I am just requiring her to do her job, not letting her off the hook, and not buying into her victim persona.

And that’s where I went wrong.  I thought I was the friendly stranger rescuing the eagle chick.  I was prideful.  I thought, “Oh, these poor folks having to put up with all this bad stuff.  Once they get me as their leader, all will be well!  We will become an awesome department full of fulfilled, happy people, and they will be so grateful to me for fixing things!”

You see, the same thing has been happening with the rest of the team.  Like their colleague, for years they have complained and expressed frustration about the way things were.  Now that I am starting to shape things into what I thought was our shared vision of excellence, high performance, and greater efficiency, most of them have been fighting me all the way.

Here’s what I finally realized — if a person is unhappy in a situation, complains about it, and stays there, that negative situation is meeting their needs on some level.  If they really wanted things to be better or different, they would have either changed things or left.

Of course, this is not conscious, and to point this out to someone in this situation would likely provoke indignant howling.  But if a person is invested in their identity as a victim, even though they may say — and believe — they want things to change, they will fight to maintain their victimhood and rail against attempts to change.  We still need control after all.

This isn’t to say that the kindly eagle rescuer has no value or purpose.  Having someone come by, pick us out of the flock, and show us our true selves can be a powerful and life changing experience.

But we have to decide to flap our wings instead of clinging to our chicken identity and dashing to our deaths on the boulders in the canyon below.

Please pardon the switch in animal metaphors, but this is what I call the psychology of sheep.  Sheep (unlike chickens) are herd animals.  They follow each other compulsively — even off cliffs and to the slaughterhouse.  They get very anxious about being separated from the herd.  They are highly social and aware of each other, and like to stay together.

The psychology of sheep is one of mindlessness, of conformity, of blind following along.  It is a psychology of victimhood and powerlessness.  The psychology of sheep is sleep.

This is not our birthright, it is learned powerlessness.  I still believe we are all eagles.  We are all unique, vastly powerful and immensely creative beings.  But as eagles in sheep’s clothing (!), we decide it is safer — because it sometimes is — to blend in, to become small, to blame someone else.  Graduating from sheepdom requires (as one of my teachers called it) the Religion of Radical Responsibility.  To claim our power is to claim responsibility.  We take responsibility for the state of our lives, our health, our jobs, our relationships, our nation, our planet.

Terrifying indeed.  It’s so much easier to be a sheep.  Asleep.

One of the ways I have bought into victimhood in the past was my false belief that people in authority positions must know more, and better, than me. Therefore, I could abdicate certain knowledge and responsibility — leaving these in their capable hands — and also blame them when things went wrong, and righteously try to convince them to change.

I have learned a terrible secret.  Many, if not most, people in power positions are equally afraid and convinced of their powerlessness!  We are sheep following sheep.

This might be another reason for my team’s resistance:  I am not a sheep in a sheep organization, and it makes them nervous.  Or it makes them angry — my friend-turned-toxic-employee is probably rightfully indignant that she is suddenly being asked to do good work, when substandard work has been acceptable for years.  I made the mistake of trying to be an eagle in a sheep organization.  Just who do I think I am anyway!?

As a good friend and colleague once said to me, in analyzing our workplace:

Sometimes people breathe toxic air so long they think it’s normal.  They think the abuse and neglect is normal.  It feels normal to hurt like that.  People adapt to dysfunction to the point where it’s seen as desirable or preferable to change.  The results are negfests, learned helplessness, and resistance.  In our organization, function often follows form, the letter of the law is emphasized over the spirit of the law, and the adventure of academia spars with the risk averse bureaucracy.

I still believe people are not sheep.  I don’t believe we need a shepherd — noteworthy that this is one of the more powerful symbols in Christianity — nor am I interested in being a shepherd.  In my job, it has felt for months like “my employees” either want me to just be a sheep or a shepherd.  But I am not interested in reinforcing false dualities.  I am not interested in running around waking up sheep or forcing them to separate from the herd.

I also do not want to be a sheep — because I’m not — but as a non-sheep it is exhausting trying to exist in a herd, especially when it’s heading for a cliff. I can’t seem to break away from the crowd due to the force of their momentum, yet if I stand still I’ll get trampled.

I think for now the bird metaphor is a better fit.  I know I’m an eagle amongst chickens, I’m just waiting for the right moment to fly.  In fact, one image I play with during the day as I walk down the drab institutional hallways of my place of employment is to picture huge angel-like eagle wings opening with a loud feathery snap behind me like a skydiver’s parachute, brushing the walls on either side of me as I glide to whatever adventure awaits me next.

How about you?

In lak ech,

Jaxsine

Breaking the rules

Five days ago I broke the rules.  I got my nose pierced.  Aside from the fact that I am over 40 — and although this is not my first non-ear piercing — this is a bold and daring move.  You see, my workplace has a policy against facial piercings.

Employees who already have piercings are supposed to cover them or wear transparent spacers.  But you can’t do this when you just got pierced.  Besides, most of the folks who have nose piercings in my organization don’t cover them or wear spacers.

But none of them are management.

So why would I do such a rash thing?  Am I, as one of my friends asked, trying to get fired?

No, I’m not, and I did not act impulsively.   It’s just that the policy is a rule–with a lowercase “r”.   Strangely, in three days back at work, only ONE person has said anything about my new facial jewelry or even seemed to notice — my assistant.  To me, this speaks volumes about our organizational culture.

So if I am ever asked by my boss, HR, or anyone who really wants to know, here are my reasons, in loose order of priority:

  1. I really wanted to do it (it’s very cute, sexy, and feels good to me!).
  2. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to do it that wasn’t fear-based, and I am resolved to not make fear-based decisions.
  3. I can’t agree to follow a rule that is exclusive, prejudicial, does not harm people, and in fact creates a false separation between me and the people we serve by implying some kind of superiority based on appearance.  This separation actually impedes my ability to do my job well.
  4. It’s up to us in power to push the envelope — to use our power to set new examples and effect change.  New behaviors come before new rules, and setting new, evolved standards is one obligation of leadership.  (Did policies and expectations about women not wearing pants to work change first, or did women just start wearing pants and the rules changed?  How about the laws against interracial marriage? Those rules changed because interracial couples took tremendous risks and went to court to challenge them.)
  5. I don’t agree to follow a rule that implies I am not OK, or should be ashamed of myself or how I look.
  6. Hyperfocusing on these sorts of superficial rules distracts us from the real problems in our organization/world — like how we treat each other and how happy and fulfilled we are.  Just because a person fits some sort of corporate mold of appearance does not necessarily mean she is kind, hard working, or customer-oriented.  The latter is what we should be more concerned with.
  7. I believe in following Rules about being my authentic Self, with integrity.  My piercing is one way I am true to this Rule, and it serves as a visible reminder for me of this commitment.
  8. My workplace and I are in a dysfunctional relationship in which I (mostly) give and it (mostly) takes.  This is one way to take some more (instead of waiting to be given to) or to give less.  It is one way to create more joy where it is lacking and to be more myself where I haven’t been.
  9. As long as all are not held to this rule equally, and not held accountable for much worse, I cannot agree to comply.
  10. Being a good girl and a chronic rule follower hasn’t gotten me what I want and need–at work, or anywhere else for that matter! (Have you seen the bumper sticker “well-behaved women rarely make history”…?)
  11. Doing this allows me to be more in touch with my Shadow Self, which is good for me and the world.  (Also see #10. 🙂 )
  12. I am willing to accept the consequences of my decision.

I can’t always change injustice, but I can choose whether or not to participate in an unjust system.

I can’t always change the rules, but I can choose not to comply with them.  This also embues any choice I make to comply with more integrity and power.

I can’t always inject reason into insanity, but I can choose to be sane.

I can’t always make people like, know, or respect me — but I can always know, like, and respect myself.

What rules are you willing to break to create change in your life and the world? What Rules are you truly committed to?

Ometeotl … In Lak Ech…

Jaxsine

The White Ribbon

I think I know now how the Holocaust was possible.  Even as a child I struggled to understand how humans were capable of committing violent cruelties against one another — slavery and rape in particular.  But now I think I have some insight.

A few months ago, I went to a talk on “the dark stirrings of the unconscious”, given by a prominent Jungian analyst to a room of Baby Boomer analysts — and me.  The topic of the evening was how our individual shadow sides play out and manifest on a grander, societal scale through archetypes and the collective unconscious.  She gave examples, like how, in our approach to war, our country (USA) behaves much like an individual with an antagonist character structure in a narcissistic phase of ego-Self development (called alpha narcissism).  This is not a pretty state to behold, fraught with aggression, grandiosity, manipulation, control and lack of empathy.  It seemed all in the room appreciated how a powerful nation with such an orientation is far more dangerous than a single individual.

Almost in a off-hand comment at one point, she encouraged us to watch the film “The White Ribbon”, set in pre-World War I Germany, as a vivid illustration of the power of the shadow side, and how alpha narcissism can be embedded in other narcissisms — for instance, how we might project our aggression (or any other emotion or shadow side) onto others to act out.  The Oscar-nominated film, shot in black and white in Germany in 2009, meant to make a statement about the roots of Nazism.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a film about pre-Nazi Germans projecting their aggressions on others, but I did.  It was riveting and disturbing, but not in the graphic way I feared it would.  It was disturbing in its subtlety and the horrifying normalcy of it all.

At least that’s how it struck me.  What disturbed me most as I reflected, and after I read a couple online reviews to help me understand what I’d seen (and not seen), was how little certain scenes bothered me.  I found myself rationalizing or dismissing both child abuse and the various oppressions of the vulnerable many by the powerful few.  I didn’t like the abuse or oppression, but sort of accepted them as the way life is.  As in, “eh, that’s really no biggie” or “wow, that’s a real bummer, but oh well!”

I believe that what lead me to be so desensitized was partially my own upbringing in a strict, controlling home, but mostly my experiences at work in a large, hierarchical bureaucracy awash in politics and money.  A place where cruelties have been done to people and gone unpunished.  A place where (subtle and not-so-subtle) humilliations occur often.  A place where reason submits to power and the status quo.  A place where political and economic injustice is tolerated in the name of business practices or some manner of rules.

Don’t get me wrong, this organization is not some nightmare from a Dickens or Sinclair novel (although even as I write this, I wonder).  It’s fairly normal.  And that’s the scary part.

I think I have always loved action films and epic fantasy movies because in those worlds, good and evil are pretty clear cut.  With the exception of some confusing (but key) characters like Professor Snape and Boromir, we know who the good guys and bad guys are in movies like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, James Bond and Terminator.

But good and evil are not so clear cut in real life.  We are all a little like Gollum sometimes — twisted, conflicted, lost, fixated — and a lot like the executives at Skynet — thinking we are creating something wonderful and instead unleashing a monster (hmm, that’s a familiar movie theme … smells like an archetype!).

And perhaps that monster is our own ego and our own shadow side.  This is also why I must create change in my life and find a better place to be.  Once the best parts of me start to die, I get lost. My humanity and empathy begin to atrophy.  Today, I can see possible selves inside me I couldn’t imagine before.  I am capable of being cavalier about other’s pain.  I am capable of accepting injustice.  I am capable of arrogance and insensitivity.  I am capable of denying responsibility.  I am capable of committing atrocities.

And so I understand better now how humans are capable of committing violent cruelties.  Just like the characters in The White Ribbon, denying the evil inside myself — my Shadow — makes it stronger, and projects it onto the world.  Just like our nation denied any ability to understand or relate to the pain, anger, or conditions that could cause men to crash full jetliners into skyscrapers full of people, our inability or unwillingness to see The Other or The Shadow inside ourselves blinds us to our own capability to commit violence and cruelty.  And then one day we wake from our slumber and find our hands and jaws soaked in blood.

And so I embrace the Shadow — I say hello, I get to know it, I love it, I caress it — and then I make more wholistic decisions that are mindful and not ruled by it.

Thank you, White Ribbon, for this valuable lesson.

Paz, amor, vida y fuerza,

Jaxsine