I was recently with some girlfriends in a social setting and we were talking about challenges we were facing. One woman shared how challenging and pressure-filled her job had become because of significant process changes around information security that required more people and more time. These changes inhibited the client experience which was causing extra calls and emails, and some clients to leave. On top of that, there was pressure to make up for the growth that was lost in 2020 and 2021. Essentially, there was impossible pressure do more with less. Sound familiar?
We had some dialogue about tradeoffs and possible solutions but it kept coming back to “I guess I’ll just have to deal with it” or “I’ll just push through and hope it works out.” I finally asked, “At what cost? How bad will it have to get and what will you do when it gets that bad?” I shared my perspective that this has become a common theme among the companies I work with. I shared that I believe part of the issue is our inability to face and accept reality when it is different than what we had dreamed it would be, coupled with the insane idea that we are meant to grow and grow and grow some more…the trajectory has to be up and to the right or we have failed. I shared my perspective that these beliefs and subsequent behaviors are causing many companies to lose more clients and team members, and causing executives to burn out or give up because it’s just too much.
She said, “Well, that was intense.” And that was my signal that I had gone too deep and maybe too far. I find myself in those moments often…well, maybe not being intense, but saying things that people don’t have the courage to say or things that make people look at me funny 😉 I’ve come to accept it and to love that about myself because I wasn’t always this way.
For most of my life I stayed small. I played it safe. I pushed things down. I ignored things hoping they would go away. I let people mistreat me without saying or doing anything about it. I stayed quiet instead of asking the important questions or sharing what I felt or thought. Mostly, because I didn’t feel safe. I felt insecure. I was too scared to be wrong. I didn’t think it was my place to speak up. I had lost hope it would change. The list goes on and on.
I see it happening everyday. People just going along to get along. Wanting to keep things surface level. Too afraid to be honest. Too afraid to face reality. I see you and I have compassion. Some people just want to stay in the safe zone of life. They don’t want to be too happy because that means they will inevitably have to feel sadness. They don’t want to get too close to anyone because they will someday lose that person. They don’t want to take too many chances because that means they will face failure. I honor your choice. I understand it. But I will continue to work to show you that life and work and the world can be so much better if you choose to face reality even when it’s hard. If you are willing to be brave, honest, authentic and vulnerable instead of playing small and safe you can live a meaningful life and do meaningful work. You can be free from fear and experience joy and peace.
At the heart of our failed institutions is fear. Of facing reality. Of facing ourselves. Of facing the end. Of facing uncertainty. Organizations struggle, companies fail, marriages fall apart, friendships die because we are not willing to look in the mirror at ourselves and we are unwilling to say what needs to be said.
In this season, we have an opportunity to face and to get over this fear. It is imperative that we do. People are trying to “go back to the way things were.” Not possible, my friends. We have to face the reality that our reality is different now. People are stressed out and burned out. We were before the pandemic. I know it can be hard and scary to face reality because we don’t know what comes next. We only know what was before. Let’s just take a small step together.
If you are ready to look yourself in the mirror and be honest about where you are, start by asking, “How am I feeling? What is making me feel this way?” The trick is not to overthink it. Let your heart and gut answer. No one has to know what you think or write or say and there is nothing that you have to do about it. Simply acknowledging your truth should provide some relief. You may have feelings of guilt or shame that come in and that’s normal, but remind yourself that this is your truth and you don’t have to feel guilt or shame about that. Checking in with yourself regularly like this will help you to build your honesty and authenticity muscle.
A couple weeks ago we had a team meeting that didn’t go well. I just felt gross during and after it. The whole team was tired and not at our best. I could have just chalked it up to that, shoved my feelings down and swept it all under the rug and moved forward, pretending it was all ok. Instead, I came home and sat with myself asking those two questions. I realized that when I was offended or threatened by the actions of someone else, I got defensive. I started peppering them with questions. I kept trying to get them to talk even though it was clear they didn’t want to. I had to be honest with myself about my actions and what I should have done differently. I also had questions I wanted to ask them about why they said and did certain things. So I worked up the courage to talk about it with her. We had open, honest dialogue about how we felt, how we perceived the words and actions of the other, and what we needed differently from each other and from ourselves next time. It made us stronger. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it!
If you can’t imagine yourself doing this with someone close to you, I would challenge you to think about what the worst case scenario is. There have been times when I didn’t want to say certain things to my husband because I didn’t want to be perceived as weak. In relationships, we are often worried about who has the power but in a healthy relationship it isn’t about power at all. It’s about love and honesty. Once I started to open up and be honest to say things like “I’m afraid that you will leave me” or “I’m afraid you will think less of me” our marriage actually got a lot better and the more I said those things out loud, the less they I believed them and the less they had a grip on me.
We need safety and trust to be honest. Most people are waiting for someone else to make them feel safe or to prove they can be trusted. That is the wrong approach. You need to establish safety and trust for yourself. You have to feel safe with you. You have to trust yourself. That’s when things start to positively shift. The only way to establish safety and trust for yourself is to practice being real and honest with yourself.
So how does this apply to the professional work environment? Same way. Be honest about where you are and how you’re feeling. I have worked with CEOs who think they have to have all the answers or their people will not respect them. When in fact, their people respect and love them more when they say, “Hey gang, times are tough. I don’t always know what to do and I need your help. What I do know is that if we work together, we can figure it out.”
We have been operating in crisis mode. Right now there are leaders who are completely overwhelmed and have no idea what the priorities should be. There are people who are feeling so burned out they are just trying to keep their heads down and stay under the radar. There are others who are holding on to what used to be so hard they are pushing and projecting unrealistic numbers and expectations on everyone, and people are just nodding their heads knowing there is no way they are going to hit those numbers. This isn’t good for anybody.
Let’s come back to the table with questions. “How are we feeling right now? What is making us feel that way?” These are not typical conversations we have in the workplace. Most people don’t feel safe enough to have them. After the year we’ve had, I’m sure most teams don’t have the trust in place to have them which means the leader has to go first. Be prepared to be honest about how you are feeling and be prepared to hold space for the truth of others. Things will be said that make us upset and uncomfortable. That’s real life.
Remember, we can stay safe and play small or we can live big and do meaningful work. We can’t have both. Yes, that may be intense but I choose intense over dull all day. Which will you choose?