Last week, a bit of my past came back and bit me in the bum. It was quite a surprise, even though it was more of a nip than a full bite. It showed me just how hard it can be to let go of things and how they can still hold you back, long after you think you’ve dealt with them.
I was meeting someone for coffee and he asked how I had got to be involved in Coincidencity, the new-style consultancy we are creating to ‘Re-humanise Work’. So, I begun to run through my career history and the various organisational cultures I had experienced. I was telling him about one particularly nasty command-and-control, fear-driven environment where, like many others there, I had experienced a lot of bullying. It was part of the culture, not just accepted but actually encouraged.
However, I had one manager (we’ll call him Simon) who took it beyond bullying and into the realms of mental abuse. Simon was very controlling and manipulative and I was (and still am) extremely resistant to that. I acted independently and continued to do what I thought was right, rather than what he wanted me to do. Consequently, I went from being ‘a hidden diamond’ to someone he wanted to get rid of, once he could manage without me (I was the subject expert in our area of technology, so very useful in the short term). Simon subjected me to a number of well-known tactics of oppression, including an excessive workload, unachievable targets, constant fault-finding, removal of staff, isolation and humiliation (he even contrived to get me reporting to someone junior to me who had worked for me previously).
After a while, Simon decided it was time to move me out. Initially, he tried to mark me as ‘below satisfactory’ in my appraisal (I had mostly been marked ‘outstanding’ and never less than ‘good’ previously), which I refused to accept. He then proposed transferring my responsibilities, and me with them, to another division, where I would be a supplier to him and so still under his control.
I avoided this attempt to move me by taking a different role that I had been offered (unbeknown to Simon) in the new joint-venture organisation that was to build a global technology platforms for the two parent companies. He wasn’t happy but I was delighted as I had finally got out of this nasty little fiefdom.
I worked on a project to develop a new service platform, for which my old organisation was a key client. We succeeded in delivering the first release to specification, on time and on budget, a really outstanding achievement. However, Simon had decided to withdraw his support and buy an external technology, which caused our project to be closed as it needed both companies to sponsor it.
Consequently, a year after escaping Simon’s clutches, I was without a role (although still employed by the parent business fortunately) and no longer working in the technology area where I was an expert. Apparently, Simon felt this was not enough of a setback for me, however. He made a point of dropping by my office to explain at length exactly how he had pulled the rug from under my feet and trashed my career. In my experience, politics in large organisations can often be brutal but it is rarely personal. This was an exception. It was the single most uncomfortable and frightening experience of my working life, an encounter full of malevolence, intimidation and control.
The one thing that Simon never gave me was an explanation as to why he had done this. I accept some responsibility for the breakdown in our relationship (I wasn’t the easiest to manage, at times) but I still cannot see that my actions in any way justified such an extreme response. Indeed, I was very measured in the face of his abuse and oppression. I can only conclude that he enjoyed getting the better of me and then making me squirm in front of him; that Simon’s personality tended towards the psychopathic end of the spectrum. I don’t believe it was my fault, I think I was just really unlucky to work for such a person.
This experience stayed with me for a long time and severely damaged my confidence, although it was some time before I really acknowledged it’s impact. I have done a lot of work with coaches and therapists to work through this and I believed that I had put it behind me, I had let go of the evil and the injustice and was moving forward.
However, as I briefly told this tale (in much less detail than here), I felt my stomach tighten a little, my skin crawled and my voice cracked momentarily. It was gone in a second but it was there, still pulling at me a little. Still holding me back.
Once I had got over the surprise, I resolved to do something about it. In the past, my approach has been to ignore things, put my head down and carry on as usual. This hasn’t really worked, to be honest; in fact, it’s generally been pretty disastrous. This time I have decided to respond differently and to address this once and for all.
That’s why I am sharing it in this blog and I hope it will have two outcomes.
Firstly, that by bringing this out into the open and admitting how much it has challenged me, I finally let it go.
Secondly, that sharing this will help others recognise and let go of the burdens that they carry. I know many people have been similarly scarred by their experiences in large organisations and they may still be held back by those experiences. As a coach, I often encourage people to make these changes but we must acknowledge just how hard it can be to break free of these experiences and leave them behind. I hope my story gives them the encouragement and persistence to keep working at it.
Many of us have been taught to try and brush these things aside, to ‘suck it up’ and carry on; whereas we really we have to acknowledge what has happened to us and own the experience, so that we take control over it. This is hard to do because it goes against our conditioning, which is to put up barriers and tough it out. We mistakenly believe this is a sign of strength. In fact, by pretending it’s OK, that we are coping, we are hiding away from reality and that’s exactly the opposite.
What we need to do is share these experiences, drag these demons out from the shadows into the light where they can no longer frighten us. We need to stop pretending, face up to the difficulties we have and ask for help. It’s uncomfortable to take down the barriers and make ourselves vulnerable in this way but it is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of real courage. It makes us stronger and more whole as people and better able to fully engage in the world.
If you have experiences that you would like to talk about, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you feel ready, share them in the comments to this blog.
Photo: by me, of the sculpture “Grasp” by Nathan Sawaya, in his excellent exhibition “The Art of the Brick”