Simon Says Quit

My current status is what is supposedly termed “funemployed“.

This status came about as the result of me recently resigning from the full-time job that I have held since circa-early 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 reminding me that my days in the environment I was working in were 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.  Perhaps with a hint of confirmation bias, an event that occurred a few days after resigning quickly elevated my certainty to 100% and solidified some of my thinking and rationalisation in that decision.  I’ll return to this rationalisation (inspiration?) shortly, but first…

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

This was the 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 that 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 modern risk-averse workplaces.  Except I didn’t.

This individual ran one social media account.  I had been running the other for a while prior.  I wasn’t a fan of how they were running this account.  The regular #fitspo memes didn’t seem to fit with the messaging of the company and why it did what it did.  Despite receiving constant feedback from individuals who were following this account to similar effect, 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 need to get involved with.

On the Saturday prior to the accusation above, this individual posted what was perhaps a poorly constructed Instagram post on behalf of the company, which raised a few eyebrows from people used to a different form 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 that wasn’t immediately clear).  I suggested that if they have a real issue, then leave a comment to clarify – not something I wanted to get into on a Saturday.  They did, and – as is often the case with faceless social media – this led to a short, somewhat snarky exchange on this post. The post was subsequently deleted (somewhat of 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 different forms of media (with magazines being a specific example given).

I was short on posts that week for the social media account I looked after, and after the tensions of the weekend, I felt that Anastasia’s post would form the basis of a nice reassuring response to any individual who felt we were 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 really 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.  The nuts and bolts of what I have written above was 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, just a coincidence then, but please remove the post anyway”, 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 (which I was never kept abreast of), dragged out for so long, that at the point where I was informed that the manager I had lodged my complaint against had decided it was me who owed her an apology, and thus meaning the only way around this in a formal complaint process was mediation, my 12 week notice period was almost up and gaining a meaningless mediated “apology” became entirely an entirely pointless exercise (though, if you believe in karma, I am sure the complete lack of personal and professional integrity this person demonstrated will come back to haunt them at some point in the future).

What played out, in the story above, is a good illustrative example of a concept I had really only come to understand a few weeks prior – one of psychological safety in the workplace.  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 would 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 if it were to be challenged, I’d speak up.

But what I really struggled with, relating to the definition of psychological safety, was when ideas I had 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.  I felt I had psychological safety with my direct managers – there were no issues there. I had good relationships with the people I shared an office with, but, 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 mutual respect, and rather than feel comfortable being myself around this team, I’d be always looking for opportunities to isolate myself from 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 can be worked around provided I personally have structure and clarity around my role, and that I have meaning in what I do?  Houston, we have a problem.

By the nature of being in a small business trying to do big things, and in a year where the three main leaders of the business also had some additional distractions from their personal lives, 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 developing, my role (as it has always done) has 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 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 colleagues might just think I’m being a dick.

Did my job have meaning and impact?  Whilst I was occasionally let out in public to present to a real live audience, and when I was, I would often receive some piece of positive feedback that my presentation had left its mark (had impact), the vast majority of the time I was producing content that was uploaded to the ether.  Did a real human being have an epiphany about their life after watching my “Gratitude” video clip?  Did they LOL at some of the animations I put in “Supermarketing”?  Did they read an article, or listen to a podcast?  That I felt like I was there simply to churn a breadth of content, all while not really knowing whether that content had a depth of impact on someone, diminished, heavily, by sense of meaning.  Perhaps worse, I never really felt that anyone else had a sense of meaning either.  They may well have, but the psychological tense environment didn’t really allow such feelings to flow through the whole team.

At the time that I was exploring all of this and wrestling with my own internal monologue on it all (and, as Anastasia will attest to, an oftentimes external monologue too), I returned to watching the lectures of a 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 famous “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 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, but I can assure you it 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 recognition that my leaders (my generally very good leaders), were always off fighting the dangers outside of the organisation.  After 8+ years there, there were ALWAYS dangers there.  This is the constant Simon refers to above.  There was, and always will be, something external to the business that could tank the lot if not addressed.

Now, I must say, for clarification, unlike the examples Simon offers above, my previous leaders 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.  But, in being always so externally-focused on the constant external dangers, they still lost sight of the internal variable dangers of having a team with many of the above 5 factors waxing and waning.

I felt that I had tried.  I had tried to bring to the attention of my immediate managers, the fact that I was becoming increasingly unhappy in my role.  I had also tried to plant the seed of me taking on more of an internal leadership role.  I would have been happy, once positioned with the team by the managers, to develop internal leadership (leadership =/= management).  But time ran out.  Frustrations and examples of breaches in psychological safety were mounting.  With the perception of no respect or recognition from my work colleagues, no role clarity, impact, or meaning, with no alternatives, and now with both my voice and Simon saying quit (with some help from Tony – a story for another time), I resigned to become “funemployed”.

For all the players involved in this story, the ending has been happy.  There were those on the team who most definitely felt I was a blockade to some of the ideas they had.  They will now be free to run with those.  For others, as I was recently informed, they have been given their own opportunities to take up some of what I was doing and to make it their own, giving them their own sense of meaning.  The business owners, as they always tend to do, took things in their stride and have opportunities to do things differently, again, perhaps with more freedom than I offered them.

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

From all of this, 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 human beings.  Removing myself from an environment that clearly played on me more that I ever gave it credit has made me much more relaxed at home and has only strengthened my relationships with friends and loved ones – I have more of me to give now.

I leave the company, not with any sense of bitterness or resentment (okay – may be a little toward those who need to check their integrity).  I’m still mates with those I want to be mates with, and I am genuinely excited for them and the journey they are on.  I will be forever grateful to Brad 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 is prepared to sacrifice some of her own energy in an already high-drain career, in order to allow me to make this decision and not have to live in a car eating Weetbix all the time.

One door closes, and another (3 or 4) opens…

Read more here::


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