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Sunday, January 30, 2005


The Office Cinderella

I've had this blog idea floating in my head for a few months. Not sure how it will come out so bear with me. Any help in refining (or telling me it's full of crap) is greatly appreciated.

This is not a fairy tale. Unfortunately, it happens far more than we would care to believe.

The first time I heard the story, it was told to me by my younger sister. She worked for a small non-profit and did pretty much anything her bosses asked her to do (she had two of them). She answered phones, stuffed envelopes, helped with administration duties, and so on. She saw it as a way to get into meeting planning, which is what she wanted to do most of all. All the other stuff was just a part of getting her to where she wanted to go.

However, her bosses sensed her eagerness to do whatever they asked and took full advantage. They asked her to frequently work late into the night and on weekends, they asked her to redo other employees's "substandard" work, they asked her to cover for employees who didn't show up for work. She realized that it wasn't fair, but perhaps if she did just a little more, they would give her more meeting planning assignments.

When an ideal assignment opened, she felt sure that she would get it. Except, she didn't; it went to someone with far less experience. She asked her bosses why she didn't get the assignment since they knew how important it was to her. They replied that she was far too valuable in other areas of the office. Crushed and dejected, she vowed to leave the job and find a better opportunity. She scheduled a meeting with her bosses, ready to hand in her resignation. Only they begged and pleaded that they needed her. They promised to give her more meeting planning experience if she would stay.

Satisfied with their insistence, she agreed to continue working with the non-profit. And so, the cycle of doing whatever the bosses needed began again. my sister's enthusiasm was diminishing and her disgruntlement was growing. Interpreting it all as disloyalty, the bosses became more critical of her work, more harsh in how they communicated with her. It culminated with a performance review session where the bosses told her that she would never be a good meeting planner. Angrily, my sister replied that they should just fire her if they were so unhappy with her work. In a surprising twist, they said they still needed her too much and wanted her to stay.

Eventually, after nearly three years, she realized that her health and mental well-being were more important and left the non-profit.

I thought her experience was reserved only for young professionals who were trying to establish their careers. Why did she choose to stay in a job that involves so much toxicity? There were other organizations out there where she could go. Confused, I decided to stop sympathizing and began empathizing; and then I started to understand.

It is so easy to downplay our own strengths and capabilities, particularly when we have help from our managers. Because they occupy a place of organizational power and authority, we tend to give them the ability to judge us as professionals. This is institutionalized through the performance review process. So, when we're told that our performance is "below expectations" or only "meets expectations," it might come as a blow to our own sense of professional self-worth.

What I noticed in my sister's case is that her bosses did a very good job of undermining her confidence just enough to where she believed that no one else would want her. She was better off staying. I'm not sure that was the conscious process behind her bosses's motives, but there was enough behavior to suggest a pattern. I would almost call it a form of emotional blackmail.

However, as I tell this story to others, I notice I get a lot of head nodding. I discover that it is not just a problem for younger professionals, but occurs even to those at mid-career. And then I read Kathy Sierra's post this morning detailing her experience. Take a peek and see if you don't find yourself getting pissed off by her management's processes and attitudes. But, before you go and blame the organization for their own behavior, consider this perspective from Hugh Macleod at gapingvoid:
Why does management abuse you? Because they can. Somewhere down the line you bought into their value system - you took their money, you welcomed the status the position afforded you, etc.
In other words, allow yourself to be paid, but never allow yourself to be bought.

Feel free to add your thoughts. There is so much here to explore (for better or for worse) and I have a feeling I'll be returning to add more to this issue.

Categories: c.Careers; c.Management; c.Organizations

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