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Our Personal Stories Show Up at Work

We all work hard to look great from the outside. We put on our best face. We dress the part. We speak our well rehearsed lines. We play our parts with Meryl Streep perfection. The end result is one of two things. We conform to look remarkably similar to others in our group; function, status, company, gender, ethnicity, profession. Or we play against type in very predictable ways to become the “odd duck”; the one that doesn’t fit neatly into one group identity. Both paths are the manifestation of a personal decision each of us make about what aspects of ourselves we are willing to reveal at work.

When we show up at work we tuck away some of our truest nature. In spite of our best efforts, however, our life stories appear in mostly unconscious ways. Our life experiences surface in our daily interactions at the office.  And that’s where the interesting and complicated stuff really happens.

My first professional job after grad school was as a school social worker. I had always wanted to work with children. I was young and inexperienced but I did my best to help these elementary aged kids feel good about themselves, interact in productive ways and solve conflicts with their friends. Each day I came home with another piece of my heart tugged at. Their home lives were less than ideal and they struggled with the school work. But when they were alone with me it was clear all they wanted was kindness. I wanted to hug them or adopt them. When I became pregnant I knew I had to shift gears. I couldn’t work with kids anymore. My heart was too open to their vulnerability to be helpful. It would take several more years before I understood that I saw myself in each child. Their stories were versions of my own story and I couldn’t separate the two. But while I was in that job my thinking was that the system was a mess, the families were too broken and that I was only one small cog in these kids’ lives. I had externalized the reasons for my pulling away.

Fast forward fifteen years when I was a management consultant. I loved the work with our clients and felt an affinity with my colleagues. I was learning a lot and contributing a lot. I helped to build new services and established long term relationships with key clients. I was grateful that my boss was confident in my work and that he rewarded me so generously. It wasn’t until I had moved on to a bigger firm with a more distant boss and more competitive colleagues that I fully appreciated the work and atmosphere of my previous job. My old boss reminded me of my supportive father and that allowed me to be my best self with our clients. I worked from a self-assured-I-got-this space. Again, my conscious thoughts at the time were I’m excited about this work and I like working with these people.

Two different stops on my journey. Two moments when parts of my story appeared in only slightly conscious ways. I didn’t walk into work each day thinking, “Geez, this is tapping into my wounded child or my well loved child.” No, I was usually thinking that I needed to act like I knew what I was doing! My thoughts and actions were dedicated to the great, if not Oscar worthy, performance I needed to exhibit.

To further the conversation from my last post about self awareness, if we want to do our best work we have to reflect on our personal stories and be mindful about how they pop up in unexpected ways. If we don’t make that effort so many things can go wrong.

Going back to my beloved consulting firm, it became apparent at some point that my boss was going to sit back more and turn over more responsibility to one of us. I was a Senior Vice President and my boss was thrilled with my work. But….his son was one of my colleagues. He was much younger with much less experience and didn’t always use good judgment. I began to read the tea leaves and figured that blood was going to win the day. I found myself sniping at my colleague and distancing from my boss. I tried to keep my cool but I knew that I was jealous and felt rejected. All my wonderful feelings about the company, my boss and my peers went south very quickly. I was filled with righteous indignation and other very attractive beliefs.

An old story of mine was being recreated and unfolding before my eyes. My brother was getting picked over me…again. My brother was the golden child and I was always in second place. Had I been aware that familiar dynamics were set off then I would have been able to separate these two stories, behave better and maintain my positive feelings about that job. That was my part in our little drama. You won’t believe what was triggered for my boss and colleague!

My boss took me out for lunch to confirm what I already knew…that he was going to turn things over to his son. With tears streaming down his face he declared, “My head knows that you are more qualified and ready to take over. But I always assumed that I was building the business so my son would be secure. I wish he was more mature. I wish he was smarter. I wish I trusted him. I’ll just have to stay involved longer so he doesn’t destroy everything we’ve accomplished.” Then he told me how hard it is to prop up his son when his daughter is the one who really shines.

Wait, wait. There’s more. The son shared countless stories with me about how hard it was to get his father’s praise. He always felt in competition with his sister for daddy’s approval. She was the smart one who went to the fancy college while junior hadn’t finished college at all. The three of them were locked in their own little drama and I was just an actor starring in the role of beloved daughter in their family story! Oy vey!

So, I was reacting out of my old story while my boss was trying to resolve one of his longstanding conflicts while his son was still looking for daddy’s attention by shoving me aside which played into my hand just fine because I was rejecting all of them before they had a chance to not pick me.

Phew! Did you get all that? There was increased tension amongst the three of us while we continued to work together very productively. Our historical reenactments never interferred with the work but our relationships suffered. We never had more straightforward and vulnerable conversations to preserve or strengthen our connections. As much as we revealed to each other, nothing was resolved. It just hung in the air.

This is a very typical story. It happens many times everyday for all of us at work. If you do the math, it boggles the mind. Each of us walks around with scores of stories bumping into a couple dozen people everyday who have their own boatload of stories. The mash-up of these hidden stories certainly makes for some very complicated dynamics and relationships. It’s a wonder that we are able to rise above it to get some great stuff done.

So I have two suggestions for you. One, develop a habit of prodding yourself to be introspective. When something goes wrong in a conversation walk away and ask “Does this feel familiar? Who does this person remind me of? How did that talk make me feel?” If you notice that this is an old tape being replayed, then separate your past from your present and try to have a better/cleaner discussion. Two, when you walk away from a meeting and wonder “what the hell just happened?”, accept that multiple stories were flying around the room creating a meta-dialogue that does not sync up with the videotape playback.

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