As I think over my life in the last few years, leading up to me walking away from a steady job and possibly my profession, I’m reflecting on the best and the most challenging of my workplace relationships. And I’ve realised that I am broccoli.
Broccoli comes to us in many forms. Some people love it in all its presentations, even raw and challenging to chew. Some people totally hate it, no matter how it turns up. I have a flexible relationship with the stuff. I don’t always love it but at times it’s just the perfect thing and I’m really pleased it’s on my plate. Either way though, I know it is intrinsically pretty good: nutritious and worthwhile, locally grown and very cheap in season. I can put up with it on less pro-broccoli days because of those positives, and also to set the same example for my kids. Broccoli might be more palatable to some with a particular treatment; maybe it goes down better if dipped in tomato ketchup for instance. I think that’s fine. But let us be very clear, broccoli does not look or taste like ketchup. And it is not the responsibility of broccoli to look or taste like anything else, for the sake of people who would like it better that way.
When I was younger, I lamented the fact that I wasn’t popular. I am naturally a bit of a nerd, definitely not one of the cool kids. I thought I wanted everyone to like me and to have hundreds of friends. Didn’t happen.
Hopefully I know myself a bit better these days. I have a few people I totally love and trust and respect, who demonstrate their love and support for me with a loyalty I am humbled by. Not only is it a bit dismissive to wish I had more, other friends, but I’m not really attracted to the idea of thousands of casual acquaintances anyway. Because they certainly wouldn’t be the same kind of friend. (If nothing else, I already fail miserably to keep in proper contact with the people I really care about. More would not be better there.)
So far, so happy and enlightened. Except… there is always this awareness that some people really don’t like me. In some settings, it feels like a lot more than the people who do. One might ask, who cares? Ignore them and get on with your life. Oh, I would. Or, consider what you’re doing that makes them dislike you, and stop it. Open to that idea also, and well aware that I can be irritating in plenty of ways.
A couple of things stand in the way of following these simple ideas along a path to serenity and contentment. Firstly: the people who don’t like me, make it my problem. Secondly, it has been made clear to me that I should change, but not who I should become or how to sustain that change.
I was bullied for years at school in a subtle and continuous fashion that some girls just have an amazing skill and tenacity with.
Great natural talent there ladies, I hope you’ve been able to put that determination and energy into achieving wonderful things for yourselves and the planet. Or not. I think my awkwardness and self-consciousness stems in part from this; sitting trapped in classrooms with allocated seating, able to hear their unsubtle critiques and not able to get away or fully ignore it. Not a unique experience by any means, but one that leaves lasting and vivid memories, and a persisting sense that you’re probably not quite good enough and everyone can see it. I wasn’t friendless through this, and from their constancy and loyalty (and how much fun we had together away from situations like these) I was never left doubting that my friends genuinely liked me as I was. It is incredibly important to reflect on the evidence of our goodness and value, anytime we feel singled out or attacked.
But such experiences put you at a crossroads which is difficult to navigate as a teenager, and actually just as hard as an adult. There is the option to remake yourself into the kind of person that everyone popular approves of and nobody openly attacks. See almost any high school movie from the last several decades for examples of how this can be done, but probably Mean Girls is the best. Most of those movies come to their heartwarming conclusion by recognising that in this way, you can become everything you wanted but at too great a cost. Your true friends are repelled or left behind by who you have become, and you can’t have a foot in both camps. Your new external shell is hollow and has no authenticity. Our hero realises it is better to be themselves, and everyone applauds it, and the drama is over.
I did not go through that transformation, because I wasn’t attending high school in a movie. I kept my head down where necessary, spent lots of time with my amazing friends, and it gradually got better. When my worst tormentors made terrible life choices, I mean-spiritedly enjoyed them. After about three years of mild psychological torture from one particular group, I was stuck with their evil queen for 90 minutes while we were both excused from a PE lesson (but still made to stand in the outdoor equipment shed in the winter: questions remain about that). I joined in her conversation nervously, and at the end she casually announced that now she’d actually talked to me, she thought I was OK. Wow, thanks. At the time I think I was relieved and almost flattered in a near-Stockholm Syndrome way. Now, I’m really proud that I didn’t strangle her with an out of season tennis net and hide her body amongst the crash mats. I would have been certain back then that nobody would miss her.
It turned out, it wasn’t all over once I escaped school.
As an adult, work can perfectly reproduce the same scenarios. The difference I found is that the people who disliked me didn’t bully directly. They enlisted the help of the boss.
At school, snitching would be incompatible with being cool, so thankfully no bully went out of their way to get me in trouble. As I’ve said, the comments and insinuations about not being the right kind of person, or good enough, or worthwhile, were all quite direct. In my workplaces it has gone through a different route, and I have learned some very deep lessons about the impact of leadership. Wow, I’m finding this hard to write about without bitterness and sarcasm. Particularly with that comparison: that my teenage ‘enemies’ were more confident and direct, and less sneaky and manipulative than my adult co-workers. Don’t think I’m quite achieving a non-judgemental tone here, but I’ll plough on. Becoming an adult is not a linear or one-way process for any of us, and perhaps that’s part of this story too.
Anonymous criticism given via the boss is difficult to recover from, and impossible to make use of.
Even if it was complimentary feedback it would be unsettling; it’s unpleasant to be talked about in secret and then made aware of it, but not aware of who was doing the talking. Negative feedback is impossible to respond to without any of the details. Observing co-workers to whom this happened before me, I saw that we all learned to mistrust those around us. Which seemingly pleasant exchange was with someone who would later seek to have me told off? Who smiled and asked me about my weekend then made my life harder and more stressful behind the scenes? Who undermines me to my colleagues? Which of the careful negotiations over shared time and resources went well enough, and which were considered abrupt, or overbearing, or intimidating? Who felt I disrespected them, when I was anxious or frustrated or cynical about the situation? Who experienced my bad day or careless moment as a personal attack? What did I get right?
The high school movie transformation rears its head again.
I should become what people want me to be: pleasant and uncomplaining; undemanding; unquestioning. I should not voice strong opinions or emotions, I should present a happy face because it’s nicer for people to be around than if I let my anxiety show. Actually that last bit of feedback was given directly as well as covertly, but I didn’t like it any better as a result. I was encouraged to ‘watch your tone’, ‘just try your best to be careful’, ‘be aware that your experience and seniority can make some people intimidated’. Well-intentioned advice, given with a polite smile, by people who wanted me to know they didn’t think I was a bad person.
Except…even though I could see the sense in keeping my head down and being nice, I didn’t know how to achieve what they were asking and still do my job. I have wondered if this is a disingenuous response, giving myself permission to continue being a raving bitch who terrified all those around her. Actually I asked the same question of some trusted colleagues, who already would and did give me balanced feedback and questioned me when I needed it. And as I hoped and suspected, the picture was much more mixed and nuanced than that.
Not everyone wants me to keep my mouth shut, because my actual job is to think and question and consider and give predictions and opinions.
This is the basis for choosing what to do with each patient, and helping them achieve as much as possible from my input. It’s the basis for educating and supporting and developing my newer colleagues. How can I advocate for people who need me if all I am is harmless and nice? How can I persuade people to try what I know will help, if I dare not disagree with the status quo? How can things improve if no-one can ask for clarification or challenge anyone’s logic? Healthcare is a setting where we should all expect, and be able, to explain our reasoning. I don’t mean this in an adversarial way. The idea of learning through fear or public humiliation is not even worthy of discussion. I took me years to get beyond freezing when I’m put on the spot with a hard question, then realising five minutes later that I do know the answer after all. But I never resented that I was being asked the question, if it was relevant and I was treated with basic respect. As health professionals, even our documentation serves a purpose in prompting us to explain why we are acting a certain way for our patient.
At every turn in a long career, people would have been justified in asking me why I was using my time and resources (well actually, the taxpayer’s) in this way instead of that way, how likely it was to work towards the necessary outcomes, how long it would take. If it wasn’t going to work, what would I do instead? Had I considered this or that additional information? They did ask, publicly, and not always with the respect I might have wished for. I didn’t simply tolerate being asked these questions, I prided myself on being good at sharing this information, and was happy to volunteer it as part of my purpose in being there. It’s part of our professional process to ask ourselves these questions, even if no-one else is.
The other major role in my life, as a parent, feels to me like it needs a similar approach.
It takes a lot of thought to try and work out how to address parenting challenges. Co-parents have to negotiate and incorporate each other’s values. You will question yourself, and other people will question you too in ways you need to consider but sometimes reject. You have to stand by your opinions, and back your kids as well as your own choices.
Engaging very bright children in why things need to be a certain way is also essential, without letting them run the show. Unless you pursue a very old-fashioned authoritarian approach of governing by fear, which although possibly simpler is again not worthy of discussion since nobody learns any useful life skills from it. In my opinion.
So, my identity is built around thinking and questioning, asking, negotiating and perhaps being challenging. How can I be myself, performing my roles, without this?
Furthermore, not everyone is asking me to change.
I am privileged to be approached for help and advice by people I like and respect, in my work and home lives. I really enjoy that process. If I was the person that the negative feedback described, wouldn’t I be too frightening to approach? I swallowed my pride and asked those questions to colleagues, friends and family. Am I scary? Am I difficult to approach? Am I intimidating or unpleasant? It was a relief that the answer was no, and that the question was received with surprise each time. But then I was left with a quandary. Some people feel safe to reveal their need for help, and ask me to work with them on things they don’t know. They tell me they enjoyed it and come back for more help, and they volunteer help to me when I need it. They tell others how much they’ve learned in my company. I am immensely proud of all of this because it’s the foundation of the way I want to work and live. And some people simply invite me to hang out with them for enjoyment. I’m probably not a monster. Most days.
On the other hand..some colleagues want everything about me to be different. How do I reconcile that?! I would love to brush it off, but as I’d established, it’s the ones who don’t like me who have the urge to speak out and the expectation that I should be made to change.
What should I do? It’s quite a cliffhanger.
The truth is, I bailed out.
I didn’t solve the puzzle in real time, and it was one of the things that added up to me feeling like I was losing faith in myself. I was constantly searching for the evidence to reassure me I wasn’t just a problem, I really did help some people and they knew that my heart was decent. It was exhausting, infuriating, unbearably sad. I looked around for leaders, and didn’t recognise until afterwards that I needed to reach out for unconventional support, beyond the bosses who weren’t there for me or were part of the issue. The people who disapproved and the people who believed them, who passed on their criticism without the justice of finding out who I was in anyone else’s opinion, felt like the biggest part of my working world. What I valued and believed was good, felt less and less significant. At the point where I began to wonder if I was even good enough to work anywhere else, or if I’d even get a reference, some self-rescue mechanism kicked in, and I resigned.
The next few weeks were full of kind people telling me what I had contributed and how I would be missed. The kindness wasn’t a surprise. Even trying to recognise the effect of ego, I believed the words. I had always known who I trusted to speak up to me, or to give benefit of the doubt if I made a mistake. I knew deep down that good people ask you if you’re OK before they seek to get you in trouble for a bad attitude. And I knew that what I valued was important, and that lots of people shared my values. What had become skewed by the cracked mirror of our workplace, came back into perspective with growing distance.
What did surprise me was that I REALLY wasn’t alone.
It has been a revelation to me how many people I know have also been told off for being intimidating or difficult or abrupt, in settings where their decisiveness, determination and resilience combine with exceptional skill at understanding people and building relationships, to make them excel at what they do. They’re almost all nicer people than I am, too.
I was amazed when I poured out my story to very patient friends in settings far away from the one I had left, how many had struggled with leaders who passed on the bad without knowing them well enough to convincingly balance it with anything good. Superficial niceness seems to be placed on a pedestal, even if it is matched with dishonesty and ineffectiveness. And it seems to be accepted that employees should be kept uncertain of their true value, made to feel that ‘there’s plenty more where you came from’, even if like some of my friends they are almost irreplaceable in their role. I am as infuriated and mystified on their behalf as I was for myself and my workmates in the same boat.
So now I’m writing, in an effort to draw useful conclusions from my experiences. To synthesise the information into knowledge and understanding that I can use to guide me. I don’t really know what to do with my life from now on, so the better I understand myself, the more appropriate my decisions can be.
What do I conclude from all of the above?
True allies are not afraid of the real you. I have among my friends some extraordinary, strong and generally kick-ass people who I respect completely and who are not even slightly intimidated by me. Some of them laughed out loud when I mentioned it. That is the way it will stay, and those are the friends I want. The question of spending my life pretending to be someone else to avoid being annoying or be more likeable never comes up when I think about them, or my husband, or my family. As per Teen Hollywood 101, you break something inside you when you try to wear a different personality. You are better, stronger, more authentic as yourself.
True leaders seek a balanced perspective, and if yours don’t then you need to look for others. When I’ve got bogged down in my workplace and its complicated personality politics, I’ve let myself be fooled into thinking I had to stick with the established hierarchy. At the end I felt isolated and demoralised, hearing only their definite criticism and faint unconvincing praise. Nearby was an influential ally who had long experience of my way of working and firmly believed I had value, who was keen to be supportive for practical as well as personal reasons, but who didn’t have any idea how bad things had got for some of us in my team. I don’t know if making better use of that ally would have changed my eventual decision to leave, as there were other things I also could not accept or change. But I will never again let myself be leaderless. In settings where the work is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding, the employer has a moral and practical obligation to provide meaningful support. In any setting, they have the same obligations to be fair and transparent. I will not stand back and wait for help from people who I have lost trust in. I will be braver and more disruptive in supporting the people I work beside, and in searching for the leaders who share my values in other parts of the organisation or elsewhere.
Not everyone likes broccoli, and not everyone likes ketchup either. I don’t expect to solve the issue of polarising people’s opinions of me. I can only strive to be honest, trustworthy, kind and consistent. I am a work in progress and I need to be willing to apologise for my mistakes and failures. I am still figuring out exactly what my big-picture philosophy of life is, but I know I have values that are worth standing up for.
I don’t intend to continue questioning and apologising for who I am.