A Painful and Inconvenient Truth (or Two)

I have to begin this article by saying that I struggled mightily writing it. Not because the subject matter itself is difficult for me to discuss (if you knew me, you’d know nothing is really off-limits!), but because it’s about the dirty little secret that people don’t usually voice because they’re worried about their employer seeing what they say, or a prospective employer finding it later when they search the internet during the hiring process. I’m not immune to these concerns. I don’t want anyone I may wind up working with to think I have an attitude about them or about corporations or about executives or anything at all…because I don’t.

You see, people come to me asking for help, and in order to do so, they wind up sharing their stories with me. Combined with my own experiences from being in the workforce for 31 years, I have come to learn a stark fact that I have yet to see anyone else actually address head-on. When it comes to being passive-aggressive about something, I think the topic of today’s lengthy blog entry is probably the one everybody handles that way. And it’s all because each and every one of us worries about backlash. We are afraid that if we speak up about some of our employers’ business practices, we will be blackballed. And it’s a valid concern.

I’ve been asked one particular question so many times over my years of training, coaching and mentoring people in the ways and means of Project Management, and more recently just three times in one week alone. It’s because of peoples’ desperation, and the increased frequency with which I’m seeing these concerns and requests occur, that I felt I owed it to everyone who wants to know the answer to do my best leading us all to an answer. So here is the question, received in various forms but boiled down to: What do you do about unreasonable bosses/employers who, bottom line, just don’t care?

Everyone from friends, acquaintances and relatives to complete strangers, has shared with me strange, often gut-wrenching and in some cases downright illegal practices at their job which don’t allow them to successfully use – and sometimes even try – any of the techniques I teach in my coaching and mentoring. There was the woman who worked for nearly a decade at a top network television studio and was abused and watched others being abused, by every single person in management up through four levels from where she was. Bosses would outright tell her they weren’t going to do what they should for her career to advance, because they wanted to keep her right where she was so they could use her. When she was given a raise to compensate for their ill treatment of her for several years, her boss “conveniently” left her salary information on his desk where a co-worker “accidentally” saw it and from that day on, everyone in her department hated her for making more than they did. Multiple times she was set up by her own management to fail, and then they pointed at that failure as the reason she didn’t deserve a promotion. She could write tomes about the unbelievable experiences she had there, but says nobody would ever believe her!

Then there’s the lady who had made it to Vice President in a large financial firm, and managed a really important part of her organization with about a dozen direct reports. It was a full-time job as it was, but then suddenly they dumped a second department on her with a handful more direct reports, but one of those employees was completely uncontrollable. To top all that off, the new department came with one of the top five projects in the whole organization, which had a very tight and very firm deadline she had no choice but to meet. Yet no matter how much she told her boss she was overwhelmed, no matter how many 15-hour days she pulled, no matter how many times she asked for help, no matter how many deadlines slipped and slid, she said they just didn’t care. The biggest issue? They refused to acknowledge they were doing anything wrong. “They blamed me for being inadequate,” she told me through a veil of tears. “They were the ones piling more and more on my plate, expecting things that were impossible to deliver, but they turned it all around on me and made it my fault!”

I, too, have lived through this with several employers. Greed and the almighty dollar seem to run things, individuals for whom their career or power are more important than their fellow man grab firmly hold of that stick with both hands, and people like the two ladies I mentioned above get left in the dust. It really isn’t very different at all than bullying that occurs in school from child to child, it’s just that it’s transferred now to workplaces, adult to adult.

For example, when you have a boss who (quite literally) forgets what they say one hour to the next, never writes anything down and regularly throws people under the bus to divert attention from their own inadequacies…when you run across higher-ups who have no clue what they’re doing because they’re not qualified for their position, so they use everyone who reports to them to keep them in their place which results in a severely overburdened staff…when you report to someone who steals your work, puts their name on it and then lies about it, or a supervisor who keeps you “in your place” because they don’t want you to succeed, or because (as one person told me happened to them) “I’m not training you to take my job from me” is more important than doing the right thing, well…it makes for a toxic environment that not even the best communicator, Project Manager or even magician can hocus pocus into a healthy one.

I have run afoul of this myself, and have heard from so many people who lost their jobs because they spoke up for themselves or others, because they refused to be abused by coworkers or bosses, and because they called b.s. when they saw it. The trouble is, when it’s the employer who’s signing your check, you have little choice but to play by their rules, because you’re in their sandbox, after all. Well…if you insist on keeping the job, that is. But that’s not really surprising because we’re all like that about some things.

If you have cats in your home, and someone who comes over rails on about how stinky and unclean and germ-carrying cats are, and makes faces and snide comments at every turn implying that your house is gross because of said animal, how does that make you feel? Dog and cat parents out there will tell you that if you’re coming into my house (as a cat owner, for example), then you are where he lives, and if you don’t like it you can take a hike.

Have you ever been a member (or head) of an established online group, only to have a new member join and immediately start telling you everything the group’s doing wrong and what the group should do instead? If so, you know it’s an unwelcome intrusion. If you’ve built something and it operates a certain way, someone coming in and telling you that you’re doing everything wrong is considered holier-than-thou or self-righteous or are the very base of it, rude.

Companies operate much the same way. They do things a certain way, and whether you think it’s right or wrong, or whether it’s amoral or unethical or downright illegal, here’s the truth: they are paying you to do what they tell you to do. If for some reason you don’t want to do what they’re telling you, then you are the one who needs to change the scenery. They’re not going to change an entire company just because you say so, any more than you’re going to get rid of your cat just because one friend thinks he’s disgusting.

People who’ve already left or lost the job in question ask me, “What could I have done?” The ones who are still in these situations ask me, “What can I do?” And I ask myself quite frequently what I could have done in the situations I personally encountered. The truth of the matter is the same Truth I tell everyone in my book series: while I can give general advice, tips, tricks and techniques, I can’t tell you “do these 8 steps and it’ll always work.” First, because blanket statements that include “always” should be banished from the English language since there is, as far as I can tell, never going to be 100% of everything being all one way in any circumstance, thing or attribute you could possibly think of. And second because there is no right answer. What one person may get away with in their situation at their company with their superiors might get another person in a similar situation fired.

Companies often hide their toxicity behind corporate culture masks. During the onboarding process, especially if there is formal New Hire training involved, fresh-faced and eager new staff are fed the pompom version of life inside their cubicle walls, with many finding out very quickly once they actually start working that it was all lip service. Oh, so many times have I heard that, and seen it for myself. You’ll hear “everyone has a voice, we listen to you, speak up no matter what” but then when you do, you get smacked for it (probably not physically, but still). You’ll hear, “Come to me whenever you need help, need escalation, need any roadblocks cleared” but then when you go to that person for the help they said you could come to them for, they brush you aside, tell you to just work on something else, and then (in one case I’m aware of) fire you for daring to insist that they do their job as a project sponsor and provide you with the help you need to make their project work.

The list goes on, and I know I sound like I’m being cynical and banging the hate drum. I’m not…I’m merely being honest. Honest about a very painful truth and a very inconvenient truth that many people who look to folks like me for leadership and guidance are living, eating, sleeping and breathing: they are in a situation where they don’t dare to try even one of my suggestions (things like escalating project team members who don’t or won’t do their assigned tasks, or telling everyone who attends their meeting that they’re all equal while they’re in that room and everyone’s allowed to speak) because no matter what they do, say or try…no matter how succinctly they communicate…no matter how much proof they have that they’re right and have a better solution to an issue…it doesn’t matter. All that matters is what whoever has the power wants, and I have yet to speak to a single person who’s been in this situation who thinks they have any power at all.

I am happy to share with you that there is a power you do have, and it’s a power nobody can take away from you. But first, let’s put some facts to all this drama I’m conveying.

In his January 2018 article on 20somethingfinance.com, G.E. Miller shared some statistics that shed more light on what I’m seeing happen on an individual basis, using them to draw conclusions like these:

Our companies fairly ruthlessly let people go…Cultural value of money over everything else…We generally don’t fight for our working rights. We take what is given to us.

This is based on perhaps not-so-startling numbers he cited.

  • In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.
  • Using data by the U.S. BLS, the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. (Hint: It’s not because humans have become more awesome, it’s because we are increasingly out of work-life balance as employers squeeze every last ounce of time from their employees even when they’re sick, on vacation or working too many hours as it is.)
  • At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week; the U.S. does not.

One thing people who know me, or have read my books, are aware of, and that is my realism. I am optimistic and positive, but I am also realistic. There are huge problems in the American workforce. Many people are drowning with seemingly no end in sight and no way out, and those are the folks who, despairing of ever having a life that isn’t eaten alive by work, come to me for assistance. One worker bee can’t possibly change the way companies treat their employees, how much health care costs, how low wages are, how high the cost of living is, and on and on. But they need a way off the train that’s hurtling them headlong into a brick wall that I myself once ran into.

So what’s the answer to all this dismal disclosure I’m sharing? Well, for starters, in this Harvard Business Review article from March of 2018, Lieke ten Brummelhuis and Nancy P. Rothbard advise that “The first step is to acknowledge when a relationship to work is unhealthy — when it feels out of control and is undermining outside relationships.”

It’s the same thing I’ll be teaching in the final book in my Everything’s a Project (and Everyone’s a Project Manager) series: if there is a pain point in your life, you must first clearly identify it, meaning you pinpoint that you have something in your life that’s unhealthy for whatever reason…and then roll up your sleeves and work to fix it. That can mean anything from your feet hurt because you weigh too much so you need to tackle the weight problem, to your teenager is belligerent and uncontrollable, to you are in an overwhelming job, in a toxic company, with bosses who don’t care how overburdened you are, how many hours you work or the fact that your kids have forgotten what you look like.

I’m not saying it’s easy to take a huge and seemingly inescapable trap and figure a way out of it. I don’t sell Easy Buttons. I coach people how to use the principles of Project Management, with all the lessons and tips and tricks and traumas I have learned from and experienced over the years, to get out of those situations which are causing them grief. Most importantly of all, I use my own strategies and tactics, so I know they can work for others. For the majority of my career I have kept my insights and ability to see things holistically, to work situations. But more recently, as I have begun showing people how to use the same techniques in their personal lives, I’ve been able to share how, just like you can turn a “bad” project around into a monumental success, so, too, can you overcome any obstacle you face, any situation you’re enduring, any hopelessness you’re feeling.

In 2017, the Los Angeles Times called out the airline and banking industries for the practices of a couple employers who were cruel to their staff. I once knew someone who worked as a flight attendant for United, the airline discussed in this article, so I saw a lot of what was happening there behind-the-scenes. “Toxic corporate culture,” the Times headline blares, “starts with the CEO.” So does, of course, a positive corporate culture. A healthy company. A positive work environment. A happy workforce. I know of one employer, for example, who goes out of their way to keep staff on the payroll even if the contract or project they were working on ends. Instead of letting them go from a lack of billable hours, they hold on to them until they get another contract or gig that person can then work on. Look how Richard Branson runs his businesses for more proof that there are good employers out there. “Companies should put employees first,” he says. And there are many, many businesses of all shapes and sizes that do not mistreat their employees.

So if you’re up against a situation where you have tried every tip and trick that anyone – me included – has ever shared with you, and it’s gotten you nowhere, gotten you into trouble or gotten you fired, then there is hope no matter how powerless and hopeless you feel. All it takes is you deciding that you’re ready. All it takes is acknowledging that in reality, it is you who holds all the power, not your employer. They sign your paycheck, but they do not own your path.

When the person who worked at the network shared her story, my immediate response was, “Why didn’t you leave after the first time they did this stuff to you?” Well, it was her dream job. She’d wanted it so badly that she was willing to be victimized, and was afraid that if the relationship was severed she would never get another chance at her dream. Unfortunately, it cost this lovely woman her health, which began to decline while she was there and continues to be precarious some decades later.

When the overburdened Vice President was sharing her story with me about what her employer was doing to her, I asked, “Why are you still there?” She’d been with the company for a dozen years and wasn’t willing to let go because she was afraid that by leaving, they would get away with what they’d done to her. I had to gently explain to her that they already had, and that her remaining there wasn’t going to change that. She also feared what would happen to her if she couldn’t get a comparable job and they found out she was looking.

When I myself had a job where I was being so overworked that I had to pick my son up from day care and go back to work with him in tow for several hours in the evenings every weekday, I kept the job out of fear of being a single parent with no way to support my toddler. All the stress ended with me getting pneumonia and being forced to stay out of work for an entire month, barely able to breathe.

The list goes on. But at the root of every single person I have ever met, heard of, read about or seen, staying in situations that were in some way unhealthy for them (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually), is always one thing, and you’ll note it in the examples above, too: FEAR. My favorite FEAR acronym is “False Expectations About Reality.” Fear is supposed to be triggered in relation to something that’s happening, like a bear chasing you. Of course you have a very real possibility that the bear’s going to kill you, so it makes perfect sense to be afraid. But these days what those of us who help overwhelmed folks see most is the False Expectations About Reality FEAR. It’s more about us being afraid of something that hasn’t happened yet, or if it has happened once in our lives, of it happening again. In other words, we’re fearing a bear attacking rather than being afraid because one is actively right now attacking. Some call this What-If Syndrome. Others have labeled it fear-based decision-making. The point is that we have false expectations about reality because we’re seeing it through the lens of our fears.

One woman in her fifties shared with me that – without fail – every single thing in her life that was important to her had gone wrong, whether it was her ideal relationship turning sour, or getting something good only to have something awful happen at the same time (getting a raise at work the same day her dog got killed by a neighbor’s dog at home), or being told she was finally going to receive something she’d always wanted but the person who was going to give it to her dropped off the face of the earth unexpectedly for 6 months and she lost the chance. She therefore, quite understandably, started assuming everything would go wrong. That, like Wile E. Coyote, there would always be an anvil dropping on her head no matter how careful she was. And the jobs she’d had were all similarly poor in result, so she just came to expect that she would always be mistreated and that it was impossible to be happy in any aspect of her life.

But she became a self-fulfilling prophecy. She allowed herself to wallow in the self-pity and to assume everything would always go wrong, because she never considered that perhaps those things were going wrong because they were not the right things for her. If a marriage goes south, chances are awfully good that you’re not meant to be married to that person. Otherwise it wouldn’t go south. Generally speaking, of course. If you keep trying for a certain brass ring and always fall flat on your face in your attempts, perhaps the lesson is that you’re not meant to have that ring. For all you know, choosing a different path could lead you to a silver ring or a gold ring instead. Similarly, if your job is running you into the ground for any reason, then perhaps the truth of the matter is that you’re not meant to be there doing that job. After all, if it was your ideal job then you wouldn’t be having all that trouble.

You see, the current state of a large portion of American employers, and the effect their treatment of employees has on peoples’ lives, isn’t the only painful and inconvenient truth in this article. The other one is that we are afraid. People can take advantage of us when we operate from a place of fear because fear drives every single decision we make. It used to be that we decided to build houses because we were afraid of wolves attacking us at night. Now we stay in toxic situations because we’re afraid of what might happen when we try to leave.

We are afraid of losing our jobs because we have families to support. Afraid of losing our job-sponsored health care because health care in the U.S. is so impossibly expensive without it. Afraid of not getting our piece of the pie, of not achieving our hopes and dreams, of not having enough money, of becoming destitute, of not having enough food, of what other people will think, of leaving no legacy, of the same thing happening again, of feeling like we’re failures, of embarrassing ourselves, of not living up to the American Pie ideal, of not being skinny enough, pretty enough, handsome enough, rich enough, of not being able to be all things to all people, of whatever consequences our religion prescribes for misdeeds, of becoming our parents, of our spouse cheating on us, of our kids becoming drug addicts, of death, of earthquakes and resulting tsunamis, of our child’s school experiencing a shooting, of dogs, of thunderstorms, of going to jail, of being blackballed, of war, of guns, good grief I’m starting to sound like a Billy Joel song.

I could go on forever. And while, as his song so rightfully states, “we didn’t start the fire,” the truth of our situations is that we’re living with and sometimes in the fires we didn’t start, because we cannot survive in this country, unless we’re born billionaires, without some way of generating income. And we are – in some cases, rightfully – too afraid to step one way or the other to do something about our private hells. Norman Bates in Psycho wasn’t far off from how many of us today are living our lives, when he said:

I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.

You see, fear is where everything starts. If you have met failure five hundred times, that doesn’t mean that Time #501 will also be a failure…but you are understandably afraid that it will. If you have had four bad marriages, that doesn’t mean Mr. Right is not out there for you, but you are understandably gun-shy about yet another walk down the aisle. If you are in the volcano’s path when it blows its top, you definitely should be afraid of the lava and ash, but being afraid all the time of the volcano erupting cripples your ability to move forward. If a car is coming at you head-on, you have every reason to be afraid. But when you are afraid of things that haven’t even happened, that you’ve created in your mind as what-ifs, then that fear is where everything needs to stop because that fear has already stopped you.

My favorite quote ever comes from the late speaker, philosopher and author George Addair: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” Relating to this quote one year ago, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson penned an article in which he stated:

We all feel fear at some point in life, particularly when starting out at something new. Fear is a healthy human emotion, so long as it doesn’t cripple other emotions to get in the way of opportunity.

Did you know that it’s a scientifically proven fact that some people put on weight because they don’t want to look good or be considered sexually attractive? Not because their diet’s wrong. Or their thyroid isn’t working. Or they’re not exercising enough. Or they’re drinking soda pop. In many cases, those folks were brought up in very religious or strict households where being considered sexy or attractive or desirable were things taught as being “sinful” so they fear them and gain weight to protect themselves. (You can read more about this concept from Irene Rubaum-Keller in “Scared to Be Thin?” here.)

I say to you now that if you’re in any kind of situation where your False Expectations About Reality – meaning things that aren’t actually real but that you’re “worrying” might happen – are crippling you in any way, shape or form, the first thing you have to do is figure out what your fear truly is, like Irene discusses. She didn’t want to be hit on, so she had trouble losing weight. Like her, only when you figure out your actual fear can you then find a way to stop letting that fear get in the way of your opportunity…in the case of what you and I are discussing right now, of a stress-free and happy way to make money and eliminate toxicity from your life.

No, not all companies are evil. Not all bosses are “bad” or don’t care. Not all employers are cesspools of misogynistic behavior, or toxic work environments where people are quite happy to stab you in the back if they need to step over you to advance their agenda.

I know that if you change your mindset, you can change your life. It’s not just a fairy tale. It’s not just something that happens in movies. It’s something we can all do: tackle that which makes us afraid and be determined to beat that fear. I did it once, but I backslid due to fear. I want to trust that all is working according to divine plan, but fears about being able to care for my child or meet obligations I have to others or fulfilling my actual destiny, often plague me. So I’m not someone who has no fear, is perfect, looks perfect, always acts perfect or who has never been through many of the things I talk about.

Because I have. So hear me, and believe me, when I say I know there is a way out of it. Out of the pain and misery you find yourself in day in and day out because of some unhappy circumstance, whether it’s job-related or not. You can defeat the Overwhelm in your life one triumph at a time until finally you will have no more Overwhelm to beat. One step. Then another. Then another. As Mickey Rooney’s character Kris Kringle sang in Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town:

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door

Books 0 through 6 of my series Everything’s a Project (and Everyone’s a Project Manager) are now available on Amazon. Stay tuned, because as we move closer to ‘Book 7: Getting Ahead of Your Time’, I’ll be posting more about the topic of helping yourself in the same way you manage projects at work; about my own techniques and methodology which I share freely and fully in the book; and ways that you can survive if indeed you’re one of the people like the many I have met who feel as though they are drowning without a life preserver or ship in sight.

Don’t lose hope. Don’t think that where you are is the only place you’ll ever be, whatever the situation is that you’re thinking of right now, work or otherwise. Don’t think you have to put up with it because everywhere is the same. Everywhere is not the same. Every person, situation and outcome is not the same. You can change your outcomes and change your life.

I’m not a guru. I’m just a career Project Manager who knows how to dig deep to find out what’s really at the root of an issue and has long used my own tried-and-true techniques for figuring out what to do about it. Just like me, you can apply these concepts to your personal life as well as in professional spheres. After all, everything is a project, and every single one of us is a Project Manager.

Your Homework:

Whatever situation you were thinking of in your own life as you were reading this article, take a few minutes to scribble out brainstorming on a piece of paper as to why you think you’re in that situation. Bring that to my next blog post where I’ll share what the outcomes of your scribbling do and don’t mean.

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