I have recently been involved in supporting a person who needed to make a big decision. Not one that could be taken lightly or dismissed with a random toss of the coin. No, this person needed to choose between being part of a particular organisation or staying authentic in the expression of self as a person.
As such a scenario is highly confidential, I will modify the facts to be more generic, change context and stay fairly high level. I instead will pen this more as a story rather than a literal retelling of facts. I believe that many of you will relate. So let me share with you this tale.
A break down
Let’s call the person Steve for purposes of giving the individual a human aspect. (apologies to anyone named Steve). Steve came to me one day and sat down in tears. Not being a very emotional person it really struck me that he would break down in such a way. In fact over many occasions in our relationship I would be talking about a situation and even explore the emotional state of his being. Given our history I was able to probe further into his feelings and whether he even felt like crying about situations. He always said no.
So seeing the distress, the flow` of tears, the sadness heaving from his body, I felt this was a big moment. It seemed to me we were at one of those cathartic points where change was inevitable. I could have said this long ago but it was not my place, nor is it now to ever tell another person what to do. I have over the last two years asked repeatedly to check in with whether Steve was ok, happy. Generally he was, so I didn’t worry, but I also knew at another level that he was not fully being himself.
The honeymoon period
Initially when Steve first started with the organisation he was ecstatic. He had dreamed of being part of this organisation for years. He had it on the top of his list of goals. He liked the reputation of the organisation in the community. He knew people who were there and looked up to them. He had a belief that this was the answer to his future career direction. In his eyes there was no other choice. This was it. In fact when challenged repeatedly in the past about whether this was the right place for him he would emphatically reply ‘yes’ or ‘absolutely’.
I remember the initial novelty of Steve first working at this organisation. Steve had that starry eyed, gung ho, honeymoon feeling. Everything the organisation did confirmed his belief that he was part of a select and elite group of people. The history and culture of the place was retold in story after story. It wasn’t long before he was ‘one of them’. Or was he?
With so many people at this organisation though, he did not know everyone. He was part of one division. This division had certain expectations different from the rest. He soon found that when he tried to go a direction against the norm he was quickly put in his place. At times he thought he might speak up but his shy personality made such action more challenging in face of the strong group expectation.
His skills and abilities were top notch. He ranked high on aptitude tests and performed well measured against competencies and behavioural standards of the organisation. He could not be faulted for his attitude nor effort. On paper and in terms of track record, Steve was a good addition to the group and appeared to fit in well.
To try to get along he joined in with the activities that seemed to be central to the organisation. He would participate in the weekly sporting and other extracurricular activities. These events were more social than work related but they gave him an opportunity to feel that he was in rather than out.
Under the radar
Over time though he began to express concern. It might be one leader or manager that affected his day. Then it seemed he was constantly in the eye of a rather strict manager. This manager noticed when he seemed to be not performing but never when he did. After awhile Steve by default found it easier to as he said ‘fly under the radar and do what they tell me to do’ then make waves or challenge the system.
This incognito approach worked well until Steve started to excel in one aspect of his work. He could not help it when his own talent brought the attention to him. Steve participated in a personal development program outside of work on weekends. He did this on his own initiative at his own cost. He still met the organisation’s expectations for development but chose to do this work for his own benefit.
In the most part Steve felt that this outside development was ok. However at times the program he participated in would have activities that involved his organisation. When together he was clearly affiliated with the outside group, not his organisation.
To complement his outside interests, Steve had a mentor, Jane, inside the company. Jane was in charge of the personal development program overall. Steve looked up to Jane as a person of integrity and knowledge. Whenever Steve needed advice he sought Jane out for insight and wisdom. He never took advantage of the connection but used the relationship for support as he navigated the organisation’s policies and inevitable politics.
The company initially paid no attention to Steve’s outside development pursuits. Then his achievements started to make the outside group look better than his employer in large part due to his contribution. From a brand and allegiance perspective the organisation frowned upon this association.
Rather than tolerate and accept the situation employees and certain leaders of the organisation singled out Steve. They made working with them more challenging through extra pressure and talk. When he participated in his outside activities others would see him as not one of them. They didn’t make it obvious at first. Instead there were the subtle barbs through emails and other communication. Then there were the verbal comments in meetings.
Management then started to get tough. They had a previously unenforced policy that actually prevented Steve from participating in such activities whenever it involved his organisation. However they did not tell Steve this directly. Instead they talked about it behind his back and made it difficult for Steve to get further in the organisation’s own personal development programs.
Many would say why stay in such a situation? Well you see Steve still believed in the organisation and what it stood for as expressed in it’s values and mission. When he signed up he truly believed that what they said they actually did.
So instead of standing up for his views and speaking out Steve went even further under the radar where possible. He did what was expected but not much more. He stopped exceeding expectations. He said all he heard from the managers and the leaders of the organisation was 'don’t do this' and 'don’t do that'. He felt that he was forever being reminded of the rules and policies. Again he found that if he complied it was easier. He attracted less attention.
The carrot dangled
Then came an opportunity for a temporary overseas assignment in an aspect of the organisation’s business that Steve always dreamed of participating. This opportunity was available to all in his organisation who met the skill and experience requirements. Steve did and was a stand out as a possible nominee. Upon hearing about the opportunity Steve immediately expressed interest to his mentor Jane, for she was key to ensuring he would be nominated.
His mentor listened but did not act. In fact when the truth came out, his mentor turned out to be the person who most betrayed his trust by saying she would do what she could but did the opposite. In the end his mentor was more concerned about keeping up appearances with the CEO then in supporting an employee who had a dream and a passion.
Behind the scenes, without Steven knowing, Jane and others were prioritising others ahead of Steve. In the end the deadline was met but Steve’s name was not on the list. Despite repeated conversations, enquiries and follow up he was not allowed to be put forward. The reason was his participation in the outside development program.
One road to the dream cut off
Steve was devastated. He also could see that instead of supporting him his organisation punished him for trying to pursue development in a way that best matched his talent and dreams. At no time did he ever let down the organisation. In fact on a bigger picture level he helped lift the standard. But his organisation being of a highly competitive culture didn’t like his choices. The powers that be in the organisation felt threatened. They wanted to keep and maintain the status quo. They had rules that made it more likely that the organisation would look good and Steve had been somehow allowed to thwart these.
Steve found out that the policy was put in place many years ago to protect the organisation from losing talent and to attract new talent. What was lost though was the fact that Steve was a party to this and wanted to achieve certain dreams. His dream was eventually to be the best in this specialised field. His organisation could not and never would be able to offer this kind of support for the specialised work hence the secondment. Now in taking away the opportunity for the secondment the company took away the chance for Steve to pursue his dream.
Seeing the truth
In the face of this division, the rest of what the organisation offered to Steve seemed to pale in comparison. Gradually the truth revealed itself when Steve started to pay attention. Steve could see that as long as he fit in, did what was expected, followed the company rules and policies without challenging them he would be accepted. But if he wanted to go a different direction, then as his mentor said, he could go find another company to work for.
This is not what Steve wanted. He actually did not want to leave the organisation. But what he noticed when he removed his rose coloured glasses was that the organisation was not what it said it was. He observed that the organisation paid the most attention to what was on the outside and how things looked, not to what was happening on the inside. This was despite the fact that the organisation’s core development approach was to focus on the inside and help him be the best that he could be.
Time for some real reflection and restart
Steve finally paused. He went within and connected to what mattered and felt where his heart was in this decision. His own inner voice said that it was time, time to go, time to move on to a new place. What surprised Steve about this sense is that he prided himself on being loyal yet in the end even loyalty has to break when his voice is not heard and the environment is not supportive. He knew that to be the best he can be meant that he could not stay in a toxic environment. It was really just a matter of now taking action.
So much to the surprise of his colleagues he resigned and joined another organisation. He also decided to not approach the new organisation with starry eyes but instead stay grounded in a sense of who he is as person on the inside and out. To him this authentic connection is the rudder that will navigate him through change, uncertainty and challenging situations. Setting off on a new course renewed his enthusiasm and his commitment. He also realised that what he had been through is now behind him. No more need to look back other than to know he is shaping his life into what he wants to create
Permission was given to share this story.