Sunday, February 13, 2011

Still Reflection on Troubled Waters

An accompanying job in one of my old stomping grounds has stirred up memories of a challenging situation.  While I'm not one to wallow in regret or rehash the past over and over again in my mind, I do occasionally consider what I could have done differently in a given situation, so that I might learn something valuable even if an experience didn't play out the way I would have preferred.  As I played through this particular sequence of events from my past, I came upon a startling realization.  Although I made conscious efforts to "not make the situation worse," there is very little I could have done to change the outcome.  It would have been more authentic, and perhaps had a greater positive impact on some of the people involved, for me to simply speak directly and honestly without going overboard on efforts to be diplomatic or polite.

As concise as I can be while still painting a more or less complete picture, here is the story.  I fired someone.  Actually, I eliminated their position.  I did so as gently as I could, and I offered another possibility for the person to be involved and continue to earn an income.  This individual was essentially getting paid for doing the same thing that several other people did as volunteers.  It was a bit of an ethical disconnect for one person to get paid to do something that other people did for free, and the budget wouldn't allow me to pay everyone I would have liked to pay.  However, I needed someone to do a different task, a more unique task that I could practically and ethically justify paying someone to do.  It seemed like a perfect fit to me.

Not so for the individual in question.  The position for which I wanted to pay someone was not desirable to this person, so when I stopped paying for her participation, she stopped participating.  I found someone else to fill the paid position and went on with my job.  It was, after all, nothing personal.  When I heard about another paying opportunity for which she was quite qualified, I passed it along, but she wasn't interested in that either. Instead, she started a whisper campaign to get me removed from my position.

One person who was sympathetic to her point of view happened to be the board chairperson, and this position held more power than any salaried position in the organization.  The chairperson already had some significant differences of opinion with me about the organizational structure.  I believed that the paid staff had been hired because of our expertise in our areas of focus, and that the volunteer board existed to guide and support the vision of the organization, spearheaded by staff leadership.  The chairperson believed that the staff were hired help who were expected to follow the orders of the board, lack of expertise or leadership notwithstanding.  This distinction was never clearly communicated to me, so I continued to operate under my own perceptions.

I knew that there were communication issues.  I knew that the board was slow to make decisions, and that many of those decisions were based on fear rather than vision.  I knew that there were rumblings going on behind the scenes and in the shadows.  In other words, I knew this organization to be like most other organizations.  So, I offered leadership from my position to support the stated purpose of the organization, not realizing that leadership was not really what was expected of me.

Eventually, ten months after these events began, it was suggested that I resign.  I did so, and they ushered me out as quickly as possible, with a polite reception and a plaque.  I received the plaque graciously and told everyone how wonderful it had been to be a part of their "family" during my time there, and I left it at that.  In the moment, I thought there was no reason to bring up any of the misguided or dysfunctional actions that led to my departure, since really there were only a couple of angry people with personal agendas that created a toxic environment.

Now, looking back at that situation, I realize that nothing I would have said could have made matters worse.  I'm sure there are things that someone could say or do that would have exacerbated things, but there was no reason for me not to be direct and honest with the people involved.  My situation would have been no different, and (although I doubt anything coming from me would have been received) they just might have heard something that no one else was willing to tell them.  Instead, I gave up and let them have their dysfunction, and in the process I didn't trust myself to be able to confront them with loving honesty.

Sometimes, being adept at self-deception leads us to the illusion that we are also effectively deceiving everyone around us.  I want to be the kind of person who will tell someone, "What you are doing doesn't line up with what you claim to believe."  Not out of spitefulness or malice, but simply because there is really nothing to be lost on my end and everything to be gained on the other end.  If I could go back and observe, "It must be frustrating to constantly be at the center of upheaval and turmoil," I wouldn't have been telling the chairperson anything astounding, but it would have conveyed that I saw the pattern of his involvement in one organization after another. 

Of course, I cannot go back and have any impact on that organization.  That time has passed, and I have moved on to other endeavors.  But I will continue to interact with people for the rest of my life, and I want to take as much as I can from my life's experiences, the ones I absolutely love as well as the ones that are frustrating as hell.  From that chapter, I can glean (among other things) that there isn't that much to be gained by me trying to "not make a situation worse."  I can trust my own authentic baseline of tactful diplomacy, honest care, and incisive discernment without adding anything to it.  It may not change the outcome in the least, but it will change how I am with myself, and that is ultimately worth more than anything.


  1. You say that nothing you could have said or done would have made things worse. Agreed. By the same token, though, nothing you could have said or done at that point would have made things better either. No one in the room where you would have spoken your mind was in any position or had any desire to listen to what you had to say. Best case scenario is that they would hear the words and then move on with their lives/jobs as if nothing had changed. Nothing you could have done would have made any difference at that point in time.

    Earlier in the process however, the possibility existed for you to make these observations. In that case though there was both the possibility of making things better OR making things a whole lot worse. There are ways for visionaries to be heard and their vision applied. More often than not they are discounted as irrelevant, or worse, fools, and their words forgotten as rapidly as they are heard.


  2. I agree... you can't really change someone's perspective unless they want their perspective to change. I guess my take on it in hindsight is not that I would have changed what anyone else thought or did, just that I could have been more honest and fearless about saying what I had to say. In the moment, I was afraid to speak up to the people involved, and now I realize that it wouldn't have changed anything all that much for me to simply be my naturally perceptive insightful self.