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Don’t Let This Happen to You

“When did I become a card-carrying member of the Dark Side? When did I stop believing that everyone is valuable and begin to pick people off like an arcade shooting gallery? When did I begin to see conspiracy theories as regularly as extremist talk radio hosts and build a bunker to be sure I was the last one standing? How did I morph from the quintessential collaborator into this aggressive Alpha Dog person?”

These were the questions that obsessed Micah as she tried to recognize the person staring back at her in the mirror each morning before she headed for the office. When she left graduate school 15 years ago she had successfully reassured her feminist, hippie parents and herself that she would change the world with her “high achievement through great people” values. Today as the Vice President of Marketing for a community based health care organization she is wondering where she went wrong.

This is based on a true story and could just as easily happen to you. Unfortunately Micah’s story is not an anomaly. 

Micah followed her passion and entered the health care sector with grand visions of bringing high quality affordable care to all communities. She gained a reputation as a formidable producer who was equally comfortable with the big picture strategies and the details of implementation and follow through. “People are our best assets” was not lip service for Micah. She lived and died by her team and people from all parts of the organization waited in line to transfer to her group. In short, she was the best of both worlds: results and accountability driven and a fantastic manager of people.

Recruiters wooed Micah continuously. Her steady ascent was enviable and she was feeling closer to having a broader impact in her field. But over the past year and a half she noticed changes in her behaviors and attitudes and it wasn’t pretty. When she stopped to reflect she realized that there were loads of early warning signs. But on balance she was still acting more in the Light than the Dark.

Micah began each new position filled with good ideas, inventive plans and tons of energy to create positive momentum with the department and team. She accurately assessed what activities and people should continue and where the changes needed to be made and she gained the support she needed to move the ball forward.

But then something happened about 10-18 months into each job. Every which way she turned she was met with resistance or sabotage or passivity…unproductive forces all around her. She remembered all sorts of dead end incidents that left her frustrated and confounded. Eventually Micah entered The Vortex, The Black Hole, The Dark Side. Pulled against her will with no self-control she had become one of Them.

Micah had become the very object of her disdain. She was taking credit for her staff’s ideas, playing favorites on her team so they would be at each others’ throats, conjuring backroom deals with colleagues that would put her in the best light, one-upping her peers in team meetings, undermining the careers of up and coming talent, writing scathing performance reviews and finding company politics to be her new favorite sport.

But it was the incident last week that was so over the top that Micah could no longer ignore what was happening. All that other stuff she was doing barely registered in the organization. Everyone was behaving that way and many were doing much worse. No one called it out. It was standard operating procedure. At least that was how Micah justified her behavior.

No, last week was different.

It was no surprise when the CEO asked each department to come up with a 10% reduction plan. He emphasized headcount and function eliminations as the biggest tickets. When she sat down to devise her plan Micah took out her staff list and stared at the names and her heart sank. After all the trimming she was really down to the best people who were already doing two jobs at one time. She did the usual analysis and none of it was falling into place. It would hurt the business or cut into the core services or take out the best performers. She was stumped.

Then a light bulb went off. Actually it was more like the Church Lady giving that look and shouting, “Or is it Satan?” It was very much like a demonic possession. She drew an org chart that eliminated two other VP roles and 5% of their staff and put it all into her newly integrated department of Brand Marketing and Communications. She wrote a new job description for herself that blended three functions under one umbrella, put names of the best performers in the boxes for direct reports, pulled up Powerpoint and generated bullet points to justify this consolidation. She ran the numbers and showed how this exceeded the reduction goals while setting the stage to achieve greater results. The addendum listed all the staff that would exit including her two peers.

“I have to be completely honest here. When I reviewed the slide deck I was feeling pretty tingly.  It was a genius solution for the organization. Thin out the executive ranks, bundle like functions together, get rid of excess staff…it was a huge win that I was certain the CEO would be thrilled with.”

Which, of course, he was. “This is the kind of forward thinking I’m looking for. No one else has come in with a fresh idea like this. I hope this will light a fire for others. I always knew you were our brightest star.” Feeling secure and conjuring up the remnants of her humility Micah added, “Look, I know I’ve put myself at the top of this but I don’t mean to be self serving in any way. If you feel that one of the other two would do better in the role, I am fully supportive. I’m just trying to put forward the best plan for the company…not for me personally.”

Sure enough this opened the door for him to rag on the others. Right about this point in the conversation a little voice in Micah’s head said, “What the hell are you setting in motion?” As she was starting to feel awful the CEO was promising a promotion and raise.

Micah had observed this maneuver by others over the years but never thought she could pull it off. But opportunity and timing came together perfectly and she was savvy enough to move in for the kill.

“What?  Move in for the kill?  Who just said that? By the time I got home I was having trouble breathing. I could hear my parents’ voices in my head. Is this how we raised you? Is this your idea of making the world a better place? We never should have let you get your MBA! We knew this would happen eventually.”

Micah had hit an organizational grand slam. Her boss was happy, she was getting promoted, the company would save oodles of money and any McKinsey consultant would have made the very same recommendation. So why did she feel like crap?

She knew that lots of people got ahead doing just what she did and more. But this wasn’t Micah. On her way to success she had lost herself and her evil twin was now in charge.

Upon reflection Micah realized there were tons of other forces at play that led up to this moment. When she was able to stop groaning about each misdemeanor she noticed that there was an interplay of variables. She remembered an undergraduate class on group dynamics and had a vague memory of the professor talking about how people are affected by their surroundings. Is that what was happening here? She vowed to finally unpack those boxes of old textbooks that had moved with her at least 20 times.

Before the damage was done Micah circled back to the CEO and asked him to put the plan on hold. She took two weeks off to clear her head. She faced the fact that she was exceedingly burned out and far off course from her True North. Since these complexities emerged with each job she decided to take some time off to learn much more about organizational culture, interpersonal dynamics, change and political posturing.

Micah’s story is on pause right now. If you find a reflection of yourself in her experience you need to have a serious sit-down with yourself. If you admire her reorganization plan then you are already on the Dark Side and may be beyond hope. If Micah is just someone you know but not at all like you, phew!

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