Simon Says

My employment status, at time of publication, is what is supposedly termed funemployed.

This status came about as the result of me recently resigning from the full-time job I have held since circa-2008.  It was a good job. In a good company. I had lots of freedom. I was near the top of my pay scale. Yet, if I am honest, I’ve had a gnawing voice in my head, certainly for most of this year, but perhaps a bit longer.  It was a voice that kept suggesting to me that my days in the environment I was working in were probably numbered.

At the time that I pushed the button on my “Dear John” email to my boss, I was only 75-80% sure of the decision I was making.  An event illustrative of some of my reasoning, that occurred a few days after resigning, quickly banished any uncertainty and solidified my thinking and rationalisation in that decision.  I’ll return to this rationalisation shortly, but first…

“I’m really upset you felt the need to use the [company Instagram] account to have a go at me.”

This was a text message I received from a supposed trusted work colleague just as I was sitting down for dinner on a Wednesday night.  It was an accusation to say I had used one of the company social media accounts in an attempt to cause some form of embarrassment or other emotional hurt to this colleague – a very serious accusation in today’s risk-averse workplaces.  Except I didn’t.

This individual ran one social media account.  I had been running the other for a while prior to her coming on board with the company.  Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan of how they were running the account they had taken responsibility for.  The regular #fitspo memes didn’t fit well with the general messaging of the company in my opinion.  Despite receiving regular feedback to similar effect from individuals who were following this account, I had decided that everyone inside the company had their eyes open on this, and if there was any degree of concern about the style or messaging, it would be dealt with by them and wasn’t something that I needed to get involved with.

On the Saturday prior to receiving the accusation above, this individual posted what was a well-intentioned, though poorly constructed, Instagram post, on behalf of the company, which raised a few eyebrows from people used to a different style of messaging. I was contacted by one individual who couldn’t understand the context of the message.  It seemed, to them, that a trashy magazine focusing on body image was being promoted (it wasn’t – but this wasn’t immediately clear from the message construction).

I suggested to them that if they have a real issue, then leave a comment to clarify. This is what social media is supposed to be about – interaction – plus it was not something I wanted to get involved on a Saturday.  They did, and as is often the case with faceless social media, their comment led to a short, if not somewhat snarky exchange in the comments section. The post was subsequently deleted (an overkill response when a short explanation and an edit of the original text would have solved everything quickly).

Wednesday morning and I am listening to a podcast interview with the very same person who took issue with the Instagram post from the weekend.  In this interview, I was given recognition as being the inspiration, in part, from a few years earlier, for some of the work they are undertaking now.  Feeling quite chuffed, I sought out a specific post I had written which had formed this inspiration.  This post led to other posts both myself and Anastasia had written, and specifically, one written by Anastasia in 2014 discussing the emotional harms that can occur when we are exposed to certain content in different forms of media (with magazines being a specific example given).

I was short on posts that week for the social media account I curated, and after the tensions of the weekend, I felt that Anastasia’s post would form the basis of a reassuring response to any individual who felt the trusted company messaging was heading off track somewhat.  The post dealt with something that is a perennial issue and fitted in nicely with the Health Habit the company promoted, “Manage Your Thinking.”  But then…

“I’m upset that you felt the need to use the [company Instagram] account to have a go at me.”

My initial reaction was genuine shock… It was in my mind, and still is, a very big accusation to lay on someone.  Upon reading my post, there was clearly no element of trust between colleagues, no benefit of the doubt, and certainly no attempt to ascertain my motivations for the post prior to this individual making such an accusation.  The nuts and bolts of what I have written above here were offered as an explanation to say, firmly, “no, sorry, you are wrong in your accusation…”

At the moment this individual dismissed my explanation as “oh well, it must just be a coincidence then, but please remove the post anyway to make me feel better”, instead of an “oh shit – I am really sorry for the accusation,” a) my shock turned to anger, and b) I knew 100% that I had made the right decision to leave the company.

For completeness of this story, before I move on, I ended up making a formal complaint against this individual. The “process” for this dragged out for so long that at the point where I was informed that the Australian-based manager whom I had lodged my complaint against had decided it was me who owed her an apology (thus meaning the only way around this stalemate in a formal complaint process was mediation), my 12 week notice period was almost up and gaining a meaningless mediated “apology” from her became an entirely pointless exercise.

What played out, in the story above, is a good illustrative example of a concept I had only really come to understand a few weeks prior; psychological safety.  Ironically, I had been researching conflict in the workplace for the production an an animated video clip on the topic and I had come across the concept in this excellent piece on Google’s quest to find the perfect team.

Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

I had to be honest with myself and ask the question – did I have the confidence that the team I work with would not embarrass, reject, or punish me for speaking up?  The answer wasn’t good.   Don’t get me wrong, I would always speak up if I had something to say.  I could also be relatively quick and direct (a communication style I’ve been cursed with given the number of times it has seen me in my manager’s office for “a chat”) to reject ideas and suggestions that I believed unsuitable to the project or task at hand.

I don’t have a problem with robust debates around ideas – this is what can bring the best ones to the surface. Ideas need to be challenged and flexed.  Not to mention that part of my role was to ensure the absolute highest integrity of the content and information the company was putting out.  If I didn’t think I could defend any content we produced should it ever be challenged, I’d speak up.

What I really struggled with, relating to the definition of psychological safety, was when ideas were openly scoffed at or scorned, not because they weren’t robust, well-thought out, or they were somehow flawed, but because they would mean extra work for someone in the team who didn’t want that hassle.  Others seemed to challenge my work as they felt it was easier to change the content than to try and change issues with something like the graphic design – someone else’s domain.

I felt I had psychological safety with my direct managers – there were no issues there. I also had good relationships with the people I shared an office with, though, from an organisational structure standpoint, these people weren’t really part of my team per se.  What I realised was, in my direct team at least, there was little interpersonal trust and respect, and rather than feel comfortable being myself around this team, I’d be always looking for opportunities to isolate myself from them and to work alone as much as possible.

Exploring the concept further, led me to this related article: The five keys to a successful Google team.

 

I was coming to the understanding that my psychological safety in this environment felt low.  Clearly, in this state, my perception of the dependability of my colleagues isn’t going to be particularly stellar either.  But perhaps all of this could be worked around if I personally had structure and clarity around my role, and had meaning in what I did?

Houston, we have a problem.

A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other. ~Simon Sinek

By the nature of being in a small business trying to do big things, and in a year where the main managers of the business also had some additional personal distractions to contend with, it was proving difficult to get a discussion going and some clarity around the structure of my role.  The last formal clarification had been 2013, and with the business continuing to grow and develop, my role (as it had always done) had tended to morph.

Recent additions to the team had also diluted aspects of what I thought my role was.  If I didn’t know what my role was, then certainly others in the team wouldn’t know either.  This can create conflict in situations where I think I am acting in accordance with my role, but where my colleagues might think I was just being a bit of a dick about something.  Difficult for them to trust and respect me if that was the case.

Then there was the question of whether my role still had meaning and impact?

When I was let out in public to present to a real live audience, I would often receive positive feedback that my presentation had made an impact.  But the vast majority of my time was spent in the office producing content that was uploaded into the ether of the internet.

Did a real human have an epiphany about their life after watching my “Gratitude” video clip? I don’t know.

Did they LOL at some of the animations I created in “Supermarketing”? I don’t know.

Did they read an article, or listen to a podcast I produced? I don’t know.

That I felt like I was simply churning an ever-widening breadth of content, all while not really knowing whether this content had a depth of impact on a real person, diminished, heavily, any sense of meaning I felt my role might have had.

At the time that I was exploring the concepts above and wrestling with my own internal monologue of it all (and as Anastasia will attest to, an oftentimes external monologue too), I returned to watching the lectures of a personal hero of mine, Simon Sinek.  It was like some sort of full circle, as I had “discovered” Simon not long after I had begun as a full-time employee with the company, with his popular “It Starts With Why” talk.

For someone who had such a profound impact on me at the time, I am ashamed to say I let him fall off my radar.  But what an impact he had when he landed back on it.

If you have any interest in any aspect of leadership, or just any aspect of making your own life better, I really deeply encourage you to watch some of Simon’s lectures.  They are warm, human, and brilliant.  Yes, there is a lot of repetition between lectures, but I can assure you this is worth it to embed the core concepts.

In this short clip above, Simon discusses a similar concept the the one Google was looking at – the circle of safety.  One feature of my own journey here, was the understanding that my generally very good managers were always off fighting the dangers external to the organisation.  After 8+ years there, there were ALWAYS dangers external to the business.  This is the constant Simon refers to above.  There was, and always will be, something external to the business that could sink the lot if not headed off.

Now, I must say, for clarification, unlike the examples Simon offers above, my previous managers NEVER gave anyone any indication that their job would be gone by Monday if it all went pear-shaped. NEVER. It was always a risk, but (perhaps to their detriment at times) they never let any of us fear for our jobs – that was one area where there absolutely was psychological safety.  But in being always so externally-focused on the constant external dangers, they lost sight of the internal variables of having a team with many of the above 5 key factors waxing and waning.

I felt that I had tried to change things in the months leading to my resignation.  I had tried to bring to the attention of my immediate managers the fact that I was becoming increasingly unhappy and directionless in my role.  I had also tried to plant the seed of me wanting to take on more of an internal leadership role.  I would have been happy, once positioned with the wider team by the managers, to develop some internal leadership.

For clarity, leadership =/= management – I didn’t want to be anyone’s manager.

But time ran out.  Frustrations and examples of breaches in psychological safety were mounting.  With my perception of no internal respect or recognition from my work colleagues, no role clarity, impact, or meaning, and now with both my voice and Simon’s saying it’s time to walk away (with some help from another guy called Tony – a story for another time), I resigned in order to become “funemployed”.

For all the players involved in this story, the ending has been, as best I can tell, a happy one.

There were those on the team who probably felt I was a blockade to some of the ideas they had.  They are now be free to run with those.  For others, as I was recently informed, they have been given their own opportunities to take up the mantle of some of what I was doing and to make it their own, giving them their own sense of purpose and meaning, and allowing them to thrive.

The business owners, as they always tend to do, took things in their stride and now have opportunities to do things differently – and again, perhaps with more freedom than I offered them in occupying the role I did.  For everyone, there is a good chance that the issues outlined above, resided squarely with me, and now the organisation and the people within it are free to reform as a tighter team with the “bad apple” removed.

For me, despite torpedoing a third of our household income (with nothing else on the horizon at the time I resigned), I’ve had a couple of short-to-medium term opportunities arrive in my lap that will ensure at least some income continuity for the rest of this year – opportunities that would never have been offered otherwise.

I’ve also been immediately able to take on some nutrition and lifestyle consulting clients, giving me a deep sense of meaning and impact as I work with these individuals.  Watch this (or another space) as I more formally (re)launch this part of my consulting business soon.

From this experience the biggest gain for me has been the ability to get myself into a place and space where all the thoughts and ideas I have swirling in my head can be turned into something meaningful and something that will have an impact on the lives of real people.

Removing myself from an environment that clearly played on me more than I ever gave it credit for at the time, has made me much more relaxed at home and has only strengthened my relationships with friends and loved ones; I have much more mental and emotional energy to give now.

I leave the company, not with any sense of bitterness or resentment (maybe a little toward those who need to check their personal integrity), but rather, I am genuinely excited for everyone there and the journey they are on.

I will be forever grateful to Brad Norris for everything he has done and for every opportunity he has given me over the years.  I am also incredibly thankful and fortunate that I have someone in Anastasia, who has been prepared to sacrifice some of her own mental energy, in an already high-drain career, in order to allow me to make this decision.

One door closes, and another (3 or 4) opens. Watch this space!

POSTSCRIPT: The reaction to this post has been an interesting one. I felt I wrote this with a strong sense of reflection, in an open and honest way.  Certainly, the feedback from readers has supported this, with a few commenting how it has helped them understand some of the situations they find themselves in.  However, feedback from within the company concerned seems to have missed the deeper reflection of this piece, the lessons that have come from it, and the positive opportunities that have emerged for all involved, and instead have focused on how such a public story looks.

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