This is a series about how family dynamics are worked out in the workplace. Here I share an example of how I was dragged into the familial patterns of one my interns. Here I share my reflections on our pattern discovery process.
FIRING AN EMPLOYEE: THE DILEMMA: SHOULD I LET SOMEONE STAY OR SHOULD I LET ONE GO?
I am desperate. I have no clue what to do anymore. I tried everything: ask her what she wants, spell out the tasks that need to be done, make her job so small that it can no longer go wrong, and still…she is dreaming, distracted, and slow. Where is she? I suddenly start to appreciate the people I worked with earlier – each with their own heavy themes, but smart, at last. Am I crazy? I ask myself. I know I do not want to give up on her. Or should I draw the line here? I really do not want to push her away. I would not need that if I were her. Yet, how do I keep myself sane in this (work) relationship? I call her and tell her we should speak. She agrees.
HOW YOU CAN SOLVE ANY SOCIAL DILEMMA: THERE ARE ONLY THREE OPTIONS, REALLY
When sparring with a coach of mine about the situation, he mentioned three very straightforward options:
- Accept it – work out your triggers around the theme or people so that you stay true to yourself when you are near.
- Change it – switch jobs or tasks within the business or change how you look at each other or how you do the work.
- Let it go – thank each other for the emotional ride and check if there may be another time to match or sort it out?
OPTION 1: ACCEPT THE SITUATION AND THE OTHER PERSON – ARE YOU REALLY? CAN YOU?
When reflecting back, there were a few key sensations, ideas, and behaviours I started to act out on. For example,
- I started to complain about working with her and question her qualities, both within and outside the firm.
- I got a headache and found myself being worn out and burned out. Was I like this or only after meeting her?
- I got pain in my stomach: was this what I felt all along and did she trigger it and could I no longer ignore this?
- I noticed I started to use all kind of defence mechanisms: micro-manage, check on her tasks, demand “results”.
- I could not let go the situation at work in the weekend: should I perhaps keep on working to get her tasks done?
I realised I had a hard time being around her desperation, helplessness, and private-home stress. What did I know this from again? Right, that was my mom who was running a household with four children, no wonder stress levels were high! As a chid, I did not know how to handle it, also not even now as an adult! Was she triggering this process in me? Perhaps, because at some point I could no longer think about her without getting annoyed with my (and/or her?) despair. Even if I wanted to accept this feeling, I found myself instantly triggered. Was it time to let her go perhaps?
OPTION 2: CHANGE THE SITUATION AS IT IS – WHOSE JOB IS THIS? WHAT IS MINE AND/OR YOURS?
This was an option that was too mental for me. ‘Yes, I ought to…’ but do I really want to? My first hunch was to ‘get rid of her’… I decided to ask myself “What am I missing here or not seeing?” I could not yet get my head around it. Before we explored this option to deal with the situation of the intern, I needed to grant myself the permission that it was also okay to let go of her. This way I could make a choice, not just against whatever she was mirroring, but also in favour or for her. I wanted to either say ‘It is not the right time’ or ‘I need you to stay, I like you’. I wanted to know what it is that I am doing in our relationship and what she is doing in relating to me and the mission we are on, together.
There is this story about the water carrier. It has two buckets, one in good order, the other with a small hole. At some point the one bucket with the hole doubts its contribution, as compared to the other bucket, and asks the water carrier: ‘Do you actually appreciate me? I am not sure because each time we come home my bucket is only half full.’ Upon which the water carrier responds: ‘Did you notice how I planted the seeds on your side of the road, how you have watered them, and how I decorate my table with them?’ The broken bucket smiled.
What I like about this fantasy story and social meme are a few things:
- Would we all be perfectly functioning like we were supposed to be, life would be pretty boring.
- If you can work with what is (and what is not) in someone, you make the best out of it anyways.
- Some side-effects and especially the small ones make life worth living, and more beautiful at times.
- Even when the bucket is half full, its spin-off effects can be way bigger than what we may imagined.
- It depends on your perspective if the bucket is half empty or half full: what do you choose to see?
When discussing the employee’s functioning, I introduced the story in the above. After all, I am always curious for what I am not seeing from myself and from the people/buckets I work with. Though the bucket-metaphor is not ideal (indirectly you may suggest that your colleague is broken :p), it serves me well to start my discovery journey: if there is no water in, is there something I cannot sense, see, or appreciate? After all, a space (like a bucket) can never be completely empty. Isn’t the bucket filled up with air by default? By asking openly, I let myself surprise. After all, someone can show and present him/herself and his/her contribution, while I can broaden my horizon at the same time. So far, this approach has been worth every minute. Why? Because maybe I was expecting water in the bucket, yet I got something better instead: something I had not yet seen, loved, or experienced before. It works like a charm!
OPTION 3: LET IT GO – WHY THAT IS NEVER THE RIGHT APPROACH, AND WHY IT SOMETIMES DEFINITELY IS
I must be honest. I don’t like quitters. Why? Because I need people to stay with me in the process of learning, making clumsy mistakes, and of reaching out to what it is that I really want. I can assure that I love drama once in a while but it also goes beyond that. It is the emotions that I use as signposts for lessons to be learned. And that is also why it is important not to push something or someone away. I hit the “pause button” in social strained situations because:
- When the past is dark, are the chances of the future to be brighter not bigger then?
- When your old pattern is to run away, why not try something new, and stay for once?
- What you resist, persists. What you give attention grows. What dog do you feed now?
- If someone wants to feel heard, why not try this and see what changes or transforms?
- Do not waste your experience: help the other by sharing what earlier worked for you.
- Stay true to your values/needs: if you need people to stay, why would you leave them?
- The surprise lies in the part/conflict where it gets uncomfortable for you (and the other)
- Who guarantees that you will not meet another person who mirrors similar dynamic(s)?
- Why would you deprive yourself from a lesson to be learned with this person or theme?
Obviously, in other cases it makes all sense to let go of your old stories. After all, if it doesn’t serve you, why keep it? Why would you be around people that hurt you all the time? What if you need some distance to build your confidence, trust, and self-love – to later see how the other’s behavior is only an unfortunate expression of care for you (or what)?
BACK TO OPTION 2: THE SEARCH FOR WHAT IT IS THAT YOU CAN CHANGE ABOUT THE SITUATION
Oftentimes we find ourselves in the illusion that we can change another person. ‘If this person would do only XYZ, we would…’ Well, wake up! You cannot change another. It is impossible. It is only possible when we change our own attitude (e.g. see through the ‘mean remarks’ the care and love shine through) and go find this violent place within ourselves, that the light of another human being may shine. How alive and recognised I feel when someone can see through my masks of ‘I don’t care’! It touches me deeply, every time again. Because deep down I do care, a lot.
Let me share a few suggestions on what it is we did, and what you can do when facing a similar situation:
1. Know what family you come from and what business ‘family’ you join.
If you do not know where you come from (your family of origins I mean here), then how do you know if you are going into the direction of something new? If you are not aware of how you repeat the patterns of the past, re-enect or re-confirm them, how do you know if you are making any progress? Even only becoming aware and conscious of your inability, and deeply feeling the pain that goes along with that, is better than not at all knowing how these unconscious patterns govern our behavior in relations, and thus how we limit ourselves in reaching our potential. More often than not, I see people in businesses like and find each other because of a common theme that connects them. This theme goes beyond daily business operations. The themes I talk about are those from your private life. A lot of people work out (or keep in place) the relationships they used to have in their families of origin with their boss and/or colleagues. In our case, we could say it has to do with staying true to our deepest joyful selves when triggered by those who suffer.
2. Speak up and speak out your expectations, illusions, and your regrets.
Be as explicit as possible. Share from your own perspective. What is it that I see? Know that if there is a “no” to you or the job one is doing, there must be a “yes” to something else. What is that bigger thing? What did you perhaps ignore as the boss/team? With what intention did the employee originally step in? And, did that have the energy of an illusion, drama, or of a learning intention? If there is not enough to continue, decide together to end the relation. Say sorry too.
3. Differentiate between your emotional processes and that of your employee.
When you start to act differently than how you normally are (e.g. start to become controlling whereas you are normally very trusting), note how surprised you are about this, and that you would like to change it. See if the person recognises any of this in her life. Perhaps you picked up the energy of the other. Of course, on the other hand, it could also very well be that your employee mirrors your emotion. What burden carries the employee in your place (even if only a bit)?
4. Say “I don’t know” and show your desperation and sadness about the situation.
Do mention your intention with the talk. Obviously, you are prepared to let each other go, however, with your sharing you may open a space of radical honesty. And, since a relationship always seeks a balance, your openness is likely to be reciprocated. Besides, being open also feels better, for the both of you. Show your human face, please.
5. Create room for emotions to flow. After the release, insights may come, or can sink in.
At the point of breakthrough about how patterns from the past repeat themselves, tears may come. See it as if the insights “land” in the awareness of your employee. Mention your learnings and therewith invite these reflections also with the other person. You know what we found out? That I was acting exactly like her dad did. The magical thing about it? Our birthdays were even on the same day of the year. Apparently, at an unconscious layer, I identified with her dad. Knowing yourself, your identity, and calling it out that you behave differently than you normally would, means that you open the door for reflection, learning, more connection, and commitment. Knowing what emotions you readily access, and what familial issues you yourself and the employees bring to work, it might not only make your life easier, also more interesting. Besides, you might break some (very old) patterns, like we are both currently working on.
6. Check the distance you both need to flourish in your work, and build on each other’s interests.
When looking forward, we defined that another job was more fit for her personal interests and skills. We also looked in what was needed for two highly sensitive people to work together. The solution? Not being together every day! When we redefined the way we would be working, and what was needed for the business to advance, we both took some time to reflect. This was very insightful after all, both for me, and for her. With regards to our roles, it sufficed to say “I am not your dad, though I am willing to help you in the process of re-connecting with him. However, what brings us together is business, and we should de-couple family and business things. We are in a work relationship – the goal is to get things done. Let’s try this, okay? And by the way, I will imagine my mother next to you when I confuse you or your helplessness with hers. You might want to do the same. You may want to imagine your father next to me when talking with me.” This way we hope to see each other for who we truly are – colleagues that both cry, laugh, and trigger each other when at work.
Are you curious for more on my collaboration with this intern? Stay tuned, more stories to come! Oscar Westra van Holthe is CEO of BLOCKBUSTERS and has a strong interest in how social dynamics block everyday collaboration in the business world.