Archive for the ‘tension’ Tag

Thinking

Lately, I’ve had more thoughts and questions than answers. That’s sometimes troubling to me; I’m a literal, linear, logical type of person, so open-ended, unresolved ruminations are uncomfortable.

On the other hand, thinking without trying to resolve, simply acknowledging a topic and exploring it without expectation of action, is rather a luxury. In my role as a legal executive for a public company, I’m constantly expected to problem-solve for the business stakeholders (even though they’re the decision makers and action takers, it’s somehow my job to identify the solutions – go figure). That can be a lot of pressure and is often very frustrating. So, getting the chance to simply think about things is sort of refreshing.

But it’s not without its pitfalls. Given my prolonged struggle with sleep and heightened stress, thinking can easily become stressful, negativie over-thinking or catastrophizing, rather than neutral or constructive contemplation. I’m mindful of that risk and do make an effort to avoid extremes. Yet the nature of some topics naturally leads to some dark connections and emotions. Too, the context in which a topic arises can cast it in an unfavorable light from the beginning, such as a caller who begins with “now, don’t shoot the messenger”.

Predictably, I’ve been seeing a trend in my thoughts and connections made during all this thinking. My pattern is roughly: wake up (if I’ve slept), assess my mental and physical state, give myself a pep-talk to make this a good and positive day, hit the office with as positive attitude as possible, and then come face to face with reality. Now up until the rapid deceleration into the hard wall of reality, my thoughts on practically every topic and reaction to nearly every stimulus is positive and constructive, because I’ve been visualizing a positive day and positive outcome to everything. But as soon as the first whining complaint about having to wait on “Legal” is uttered, or the first fire drill issue is lobbed over the fence into my lap, my thoughts are suddenly unable to conceive of anything but the negative side of everything.

I’m not a negative person, really. I hate the thought that I’ve turned into one. Used to be that I could readily see both sides of any problem and was always willing to remain upbeat and give the benefit of the doubt. But recently, I can’t truthfully say that still describes me.

Perhaps most troubling about this vague pattern I’ve detected is the tendency to make connections between seemingly disconnected things. The way my brain works, when I’ve connected two concepts with some reasonably logical basis for the connection, they’re nearly inextricable, always surfacing together or calling in the other whenever one arises alone.

That’s not a problem when the connections are reasonable, comfortable, understandable and don’t make me question the motives or integrity of the triggering stimulus (especially when that’s a person). It can be quite vexing when the connection is not obvious, or is discordant with accepted wisdom, or throws other values or beliefs into question.

Perhaps an example will help illustrate why this troubles me. This is kind of long, but it’ll land in a minute, I promise:

At the end of every quarter, tensions run high for my team because the sales organization puts a lot of pressure on us to get contracts drafted, negotiated, revised and executed before the end of the quarter so that the sale and revenue count for the present financial reporting period. This pressure is exacerbated by their tendency to leave much of the quarter’s worth of deals until the last week of the quarter, making a huge mountain of work to be completed by very few people in a very short time.

This set of conditions often leads to a high volume of complaints that my team are taking too long and a general attitude that we’re the only reason important deals aren’t getting done or are slipping into the next quarter. No one seems to acknowledge that their failure to plan ahead, their failure to engage with my team earlier, their failure to timely provide complete and accurate information necessary to draft the contracts, and their failure to follow-through with their own tasks are all bigger and more significant contributors to any deal failure than is my team taking the time needed to draft complex documents once we have the needed info and approval. Because we’re at the end of a long process, we attract the ire and the blame.

This is a known and familiar state of affairs, we’re often told, so we should plan for it and not be so sensitive when frustrated sales guys occasionally let off steam at our expense.

This enabling, blame-shifting patter is also familiar. It’s very like what I and many similarly situated folks have encountered when seeking explanations and solutions to problems of inequality. We’re often answered with references to tradition, economic expediency, scarcity of resources, cultural differences, evolutionary immaturity, and plain old inertia as reasons why one group must suffer under unequal treatment, pay, living conditions, and legal rights. We’re told that we have to be patient and let time transform things until we have the relief we seek.

In other words, accommodate your persecutors, swallow your grief and grievances, because your feelings, your thoughts, your life matters less.

And just like that, every resistance to the pleas about abusive treatment of my employees by their own coworkers is in the same league as, say, a victim of domestic violence being told their abuser really loves them but that they’re frustrated with the victim’s X quality or Y behavior, so if they’d just change that thing they wouldn’t attract that abuse. Despite the significant differences in quality and severity and magnitude and genre of the two scenarios, because my brain has recognized the common factor of a demand that an impacted person or group capitulate to and accommodate the unreasonable demand of the privileged as a valid comparison, I can now no longer encounter one without thinking of the other.

This inextricable tie has knock-on effects to how I interact with the people associated with that connection. I’m cautious and suspicious of everything they say and do, expecting to be burdened or betrayed (in big and small ways) in every interaction. Trust is slow or nonexistent. Velocity of work drops because every aspect is double- and triple-checked to avoid recriminations and negative consequences from any perception of a mistake on our part. Friendliness, empathy, camaraderie, collaboration, cooperation all take a hit. All because now every time I hear anything along the lines of “it’s just end of quarter tension”, “everyone is under a lot of pressure”, and “cut them some slack”, my mind fills with echoes of co-dependent excuses and images of black-eyed women ducking their heads every time a loud noise happens.

Even though I know, intellectually, that the unfairness leveled towards my team and violence against the helpless are worlds apart and not truly related, the kernel of similarity in the justification underpinning both types of behavior is enough that I can’t emotionally separate them. And that’s eroding my professional objectivity and my ability to cope with the unreasonable behavior linked to this perception.

So that’s a thing my brain does now: draws dark, somewhat irrational connections between unrelated concepts and taints my world view in the process. Awesome.

Inglorious Leadership

I’ve written in the past about the hard part of being the boss, the dark side of being ‘in charge’. Making hard decisions for your team, even sacrificing some personal dignity for the greater good of the organization can feel pretty bad and take a toll on your spirit. But there’s another dimension of the dark side of leadership that has been mercifully rare in my career: helping to make hard choices for someone else’s team.

My role often includes unenviable tasks, such as delivering bad news to executives, and bringing a tempering influence to ill-considered proposals. But I do not normally have to be involved in the emotionally-charged decisions other leaders have to make with regard to their employees. I’m thankful that most of those get dealt with by HR, not by me or my Legal team.

But given my tenure of 18+ years, the odds were against my lucky streak lasting and today the streak broke. And because the universe does nothing in my life by half-measures, it broke twice in the same day. First, I got stuck in the middle of a disagreement between two leaders of separate functional organizations over appropriate crisis management communication and had to play peacemaker in order to break the stalemate. Then, one of our senior executives asked me to participate in the process of disciplining a colleague, another senior leader in a different department who is my peer and someone with whom I frequently collaborate.

Neither occurrence was particularly traumatic. Both were handled respectfully and with tact. Still, the tension and angst produced by unexpectedly having to participate in adversarial process within my own organization was intense. In a way, it speaks pretty highly of my colleagues and our company that this was the first occasion when circumstances required this type of intervention by me. Even discounting the first ten years of my career with this company in which I was an individual contributor staff attorney, it is remarkable that in the last eight years in my various leadership roles I have never been called on to address similar tensions.

Yet, despite that positive spin on this rarity, I can’t help acknowledging that the experience was unpleasant and unsettling.

Mediating disagreement is familiar. It’s part and parcel of negotiation and deal-making. But the nuance that makes this different in my mind is that the stand-off occurred between people who are supposed to be on the same side, people with whom I’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder battling back the forces set against our company’s interests. Witnessing these same professionals square off with one another struck a clanging, discordant note in my otherwise harmonious working environment. Finding myself in the middle between them, having to work hard to persuade them back to cooperating for the good of the company, forcing me to be a decision-maker where I normally only advise, was wrong on every level. It tested parts of my leadership skill set in ways I never expected.

Then I was called upon to not merely provide constructive feedback about a fellow leader, but to essentially provide testimony that would be used in a decision making process that could potentially end in my colleague’s dismissal. That was a singularly uncomfortable conversation. I found that it tested my ability to balance candor with tact and honesty with empathy. Ultimately, it pitted my commitment to corporate interests against my instinct of loyalty to a friend.

And that’s the dark side of being a leader, of being in a position to counsel and influence. Maintaining your personal integrity – not taking an “easy” way out to avoid discomfort and conflict, not compromising truth for the sake of placidity even if it means someone you like suffers the consequences of their actions – that’s the gritty, indecorous, inglorious aspect of leadership.

I’ve faced it plenty of times with respect to my own employees and my own department. It wasn’t fun, but I understood it to be a necessary part of leading my organization. And in those instances I could bear the discomfort because it was, at its core, constructive and finite. It felt ten times worse today because the issues weren’t with my people and my lack of control over the tension made it hard to feel confident that it was constructive or finite. Instead, it felt like being an accidental witness to a private argument or a tender moment between strangers – wrong and icky.

Thankfully, the warring colleagues called a truce and returned to being collaborators, working the problem instead of pointing fingers. Also on the plus side, the executive evaluating my colleague for discipline committed to giving them an opportunity to improve before termination. It’ll be a lot of work in a short time frame, but it’s a genuine chance to save their job.

So the peacemaking and critiquing has a valuable purpose. My uncomfortable lesson in painful workplace growth was worth it.

29 Days: Long Weekend 

Coming to the end of a long week and the oddly extended month of February. I have the next four days off, YAY! 

Gonna pretend to- or, as I like to think of it, aspire to – do some long-neglected chores. I may go to this cool new theater-in-a-tavern that opened recently and find a movie to watch while I have lunch. I may hang out at the bookstore. I will spend some quality time with my pillow and also with my family, but not at the same time.  I will do a few errands on Monday. 

But more than anything I will devote real energy and concentration on NOT working, NOT checking work email, NOT serving as the emotional pacifier for executives and coworkers who need constant validation that their backsides won’t be pinched off by the monumentally stupid choices they want to make against advice and reason. Ok, maybe I’m not quite as relaxed and positive in this moment as I hope to be by next Wednesday. Hence the 4-day weekend. 
These next four days have loomed large in my imagination for most of the month. Not because of any plan for glittering events or exciting experiences, but because it’s almost 100% me-time. I’m working hard not to feel guilty about that, about both wanting and taking me-time. That’s always a challenge for me, resisting guilt. 

But I think it’s ok to focus on yourself once in awhile. And even if I end up spending four straight days in my pjs doing nothing but watching shows on my DVR, I’ll have spent time with myself and let the job rest for a while. I’ll count that as a win and one very good thing. 

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