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BAGGAGE WE BRING TO WORK

Wherever you go, there you are. Translation: you can change the scenery, change the address, change the situation, change the name, change whatever but you will always shlep your essential self along. There’s just no running away from who you are…that complicated synthesis of your life experiences and your basic nature. I don’t mean to get all new age or psychological with you but I just couldn’t let this go. Too many client conversations have landed here.

If you think that you tuck away all your insecurities, self doubts, self importance or (fill in the blank) issue that grew out of your childhood experiences in ways that no one at work would ever suspect…guess again. If you think you leave your emotional baggage outside the office, neatly compartmentalized for your family or therapist…time to get real.

Which of these stories most closely resembles your own.

Maxine is an EVP at a large corporation. She has a reputation as smart, reliable and is a highly respected member of the executive team. People enjoy working for her because she gives them challenging projects and invests in their development. Less experienced women beat a path to her door to gain her insights about succeeding as a woman in a male dominated culture. Maxine is generous with her time and always simple with her wisdom. “Be the smartest person in the room without grandstanding.”

In a 360 feedback report Maxine got very high scores with one exception. Raters commented repeatedly that she bent over backwards to be liked and this sometimes undercut her effectiveness. “Maxine routinely pulls me aside after staff meetings to ask me how she did. She’s not asking for constructive feedback. She’s asking for a pat on the back. This feels really awkward.” “If someone disagrees with Maxine she doesn’t necessarily stick to her guns. It seems to depend on how concerned she is about losing face.” “Maxine spends too much time prefacing tough decisions. She can’t seem to just spit it out.”

By the time I was having a conversation with Maxine about her apparent need to be liked she looked at me, turned her palms up with a shoulder shrug and declared, “That’s just who I am. Always have been.” Although we spent very little time discussing her childhood and leftover issues that created for her, we did get very clear about one thing. As an executive (not to mention a grown up!) she needed to get over this. In time she was able to grow beyond her childhood fears and being liked over being respected dropped off. Sure, every now and then something would push her buttons but mostly she had turned the corner.

When Daniel attends a meeting participants cringe. They know that three minutes into the conversation Daniel will pull out his soapbox to impart his deep insights and regale the crowd with a boring personal story. The people in the room wish that Daniel would just cut to the chase and declare, “I am the most experienced and brilliant one in the room and don’t you ever forget it” so they could move on to the real matter at hand. No amount of feedback from his boss or 360 assessments or hallway joking has calmed the beast. Although respected for his knowledge, Daniel is the leader everyone tries to work around. The saddest part is that Daniel operates under the illusion that he is revered.

As a last ditch effort, the CEO asked me to see if I could crack through the teflon. My response was that I never do court ordered therapy because it never works. Daniel is not motivated to change or have any insight about his behavior. With all these caveats in place I agreed to talk with Daniel. I began rather bluntly. “You know I am here because your boss can’t get through to you, right? His bottom line is that if you can’t see how you are alienating people and change your behavior that your job may be in jeopardy.” Although his words indicated that he was more than willing to cooperate I sensed that Daniel perceived this intervention as a challenge. I knew he was sharpening his claws with every intention of demolishing me. But this wasn’t my first rodeo…

Me: So it seems clear that you believe you’re the smartest person in the room.

Daniel: Yes, that’s right. With a few exceptions I can run circles around most people in this building. And they know it too. That’s why they scatter when I approach. That’s why the room is dead silent after I put in my two cents. I leave them speechless and intimidated.

Me: The way you describe that it sounds like fun to you…a sport.

Daniel: (laughs) Sort of. You know I was an all star athlete through college and president of the debate team. I know how to win. I’m very good at it.

Me: And I’m certain that has helped you be so successful in business. Always good to have a fierce competitor on the team.

Daniel: There’s a reason why I was promoted to be the youngest SVP this company has ever had. I get results.

Me: Do you ever consider the cost of your success? You may win and the company may win. But it seems there are plenty of “losers” in your wake.

Daniel: Hey, you snooze, you loose. If people can’t keep up with me that’s not my problem.

Me: That might have been the case when you were a manager or a director. But that attitude just doesn’t fly if you are an SVP. That’s not the kind of leadership the CEO is interested in on his team.

Daniel: So he really thinks he can send you in here and change my stripes? He knew who I was before he promoted me. What you see is what you get. This is who I’ve always been.

Me: So if I asked your childhood friends or your family, how would you describe Daniel what would they say?

Daniel: They’d say some nice stuff but mostly they would say I’m an asshole. My parents put me in sports and debating as a way to channel my aggression. It may have given me some outlets but it didn’t turn me into Mr. Nice Guy.

Me: You do know that everyone in the building agrees with your chums? What you call intimidation I call avoidance. People aren’t frightened of your smarts. They don’t like being around you. You said it yourself. You’re an asshole.

This reflection didn’t create major changes in Daniel but it did begin a different discussion. He began to see that the stakes were super high if he persisted in this behavior. That was mildly motivating. He was able to tone it down but he was never able to let go of that self important attitude that caused him to look down on those around him. Eventually the CEO tired of this and let him go. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Daniel landed quickly in another company because they were wowed by his brilliance and hard charging ways. My prediction is that will last until the new CEO gets fed up.

So what’s my point here? We all drag our crap into work every day. Some of it we’ve got control over, some of it we are totally unaware of and some of it is near and dear to us and we have no intention of changing. This is why self awareness is so crucial for effective leadership. So think of those personality quirks that are as old as you are. How do those manifest at work? Are they used for good or evil? Are they appropriate behaviors for the work place? Or is it time to grow up and move passed these foibles?

I will write more next week about some practical guidance about what to do with your baggage. Spoiler alert: don’t overpack and don’t check it through.

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