We talk about it, we get trained to avoid it ever happening… and then it happens. A client or a boss does something that makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t know what to do.
Sounds familiar? It just happened to one of my clients. One of those work situations when something unsavory happens, but she has no idea of how to deal with it.
“You know what happens when you are perceived as the troublemaker? you get sided, isolated, ostracized and you end up having to change industry”.
There is truth in that. The system likes to protect itself and many industries would rather not have to deal with the “problem employee”.
What might happen in real life? The person who brought the scandal ends up leaving, not to face the intolerable situation of feeling like the ugly duckling in the pond.
And here comes my client’s dilemma: take upon herself and ignore the incident, or speak up?
What would you do when faced with these situations?
Luckily, they don’t happen that often, most industries have clear codes of conduct and other types of training.
However, this situation begs the question: at what point will turning your face away is not acceptable anymore?
Where do you define the limits, between accepting certain things in the name of survival and ambition and saying “no” out of personal integrity?.
Why do we tolerate the struggles and other cr+p?
Survival, guilt and other beliefs: the good reasons and the bad excuses
Where is the fine line? As kids, we have been taught patience and acceptance that some things will be uncomfortable but once we get what we want, we will understand it was well worth the effort.
That’s what our societies, our education and our cultures (including religion) taught us.
In itself, it’s not a punishment.
As humans, we are wired to choose pleasure instead of pain. And it can be a healthy behavior.
Why go through a tortuous path when the straight line will get you to the same destination anyway?
But with time, and hopefully maturity, we know that instant gratification rarely equals long term satisfaction. But we build all these beliefs of “no pain, no gain” around the narrative that everything needs to be earned and by extension, it has to be a struggle. It’s a matter of survival.
There is an end prize to that discomfort
With time, we end up tolerating and justifying verbal abuse; at work, a necessary evil to justify earning a paycheck; or the price to pay to “be loved” when we have been led to believe we are not lovable as we are.
And, we will find all sorts of explanations to reassure ourselves of why we cannot do otherwise.
Some explanations are very legit and are a real matter of survival: it’s difficult to leave a job without ensuring a minimal financial security. And no one will ever be in our shoes to understand why we can accept certain situations. It’s always easier to be on the other side of the pain.
But the need for safety and security, while, again, is a perfectly legit point to stay put, can sometimes be just a surface excuse hiding a forest of discomfort of another kind.
That is, stepping outside any comfort zone can be so painful that we end up settling for what we know instead of for what we really want.
Uncomfortable and unfulfilling, for sure, but better the devil you know, right?
Well, everybody does it…
How can we justify accepting? when we realize that everyone has been tolerating it for a long time anyway; maybe there is something wrong with us if we started straying from the common path.
“if I quit my job, what will they think of me? That I am a loser? That I am wasting my chances when so many others struggle. I will stay and stuff my doubts, for the sake of conforming”.
In social psychology, this collective behavior has been called the “Abilene Paradox”; despite several individual reservations, a decision is taken in the name of all. Example: when everyone agrees to go to that restaurant and discovers after the facts that everyone was against to begin with, but each individual agreed because they thought this is what the other person wanted.
Can you see this happening in your own teams? When everyone tolerates a situation because they think it’s normal and that’s the way it is; and if they voiced their concerns, they would be ostracized? It takes a heck of a lot of courage to blow that whistle, for sure.
When is the time to say stop?
The frog in the boiling water
Day after day, we realize we are dreading the day ahead and living our lives for the weekends only, we wake up in the morning hating the day and not wanting to get out of bed.
Until we cannot take it anymore.
Sounds dramatic? Inflammation in the body builds progressively. The constant pressure without any perceived benefit outside a survival motivation (the paycheck!) will not make the proverbial frog immediately jump out of the slowly boiling water.
Guess what happens next? We learn how to be ok with the stress and daily discomfort. And we develop all sorts of coping mechanisms.
Bad cope and more bad cope
Why does someone who is lovely and sweet and always helpful suddenly loses it on the job? You’ve heard of people going “postal”, I am certain you’ve seen it too. And most of you have witnessed what burnout does to people.
It starts with frustration and demotivation – this is the helpful colleague becoming a pain to get anything from, the “no can do” people, the half-baked jobs.
And it culminates with feeling depressed and its other side, outbursts, uber sensitivity, and isolation.
Are these signs of emotional immaturity? Possibly. But there is so much pressure and frustration the body can take. And when the reservoir is full, it will spill over. Unfortunately, not the right way, and quite often, in a manner that can be harmful to one’s career and relationships.
When it becomes self-betrayal
The body doesn’t lie when it starts sending S.O.S’s in multiple forms. The frustration, the anger, the anxiety, the demotivation, all of these are powerful messengers steering us back to pause and take a deeper look.
What if we don’t?
Diseases, illnesses, not wanting to get out of bed. Doesn’t sound like a joyful way of living.
But even more so, the biggest harm we can do ourselves is ignoring all sorts of signs, when, intuitively, we know that something is really wrong.
This is when we realize we are losing sleep and appetite because of the feeling of self-betrayal.
Indeed, there is a lot to command for being loyal to a company or to a person, but when circumstances become toxic and intolerable, by not taking action, we end up betraying ourselves because we are afraid to betray others.
Loyalty at a hefty price …
So now we’ve seen the bad and the ugly of settling with the intolerable, there are some steps that each of us can take to get back on track to being our authentic self.
Writing your personal code of integrity: know what your courage is made of
Know your values
That’s a big one. It sounds very basic, but trust me, I do this exercise with most of my coaching clients and what you think is not always what shows up.
Why knowing your values is important? Because these become your main signposts.
Every time you are in the situation where you notice some unease in your body, you can do a quick check: what is bothering me, why am I not feeling enthusiastic about it?
How do you feel when you are asked to promote a product or to sell a strategy that you don’t agree with?
These kinds of situations create inner conflicts. This is why knowing your values is the best shortcut you can find to
1/ explain some of the unease you find yourself in, and
2/ make choices that are congruent with your own code of integrity.
Know what you are standing for
Writing your values, and revisiting them every once in a while, is a great way to check in and making the choice to walk away from certain situations, knowingly.
Start by examining times in your life when you got excited and motivated.
What was happening? What qualities did you display at that moment, that you are proud of? What are your non-negotiables? (you can find at the bottom of this page a link to an article that will walk you through the exercise).
Your values are who you are in essence, and they can range from you valuing freedom, integrity, needing to be surrounded by beauty, or perhaps putting family life first. All work.
List those, prioritize them. Then examine the situations when those values were not met. What was happening in your mind? What were your body’s reactions … tensed, unease, that node in the stomach?…
Exactly! when we are not congruent with our values, we start having that feeling that we are betraying ourselves. And our bodies and minds will gently (or not!) remind us of it … this is why we get into that state of dis-ease. Makes sense, right?
Walk your talk
Your values are your non-negotiables and your inner compass.
If integrity is your prime value, imagine how challenging it would be for you to work in an environment or to sell a product that is not at par with your inner standards. Now extend that to your other top values and see how certain situations can turn harmful when you are constantly breaching your own code of honor.
So what can you do about it?
You can, of course, walk away. But this is not always possible, for survival, safety and security reasons, among others. But you still have some choices you can make. And I am offering two suggestions here.
The first, is to walk your talk. By that, I mean: don’t betray yourself because the situation is pushing you into it. You don’t have to engage; you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing because this is how it works.
Find a strategy and a compromise that work for you.
Be conscious of your own inner voice when it is telling you to walk away or not to encourage or imitate. This is you choosing to be proud of what you see in the mirror every morning.
The second choice would be to speak up. This is when I will ask you to do another inner check in.
Are you speaking up out of integrity and responsibility, or out of righteous anger?.
The best way to ensure it is the case is to ask yourself the four Buddhist gates of speech: is it true? Is it necessary? Is it the right time to say it? Is it kind (i.e. am I doing this out of integrity, or do I have a personal agenda?)
Integrate your values with your daily decisions. Know what is negotiable and what is not acceptable for you.
Make your behavior and your tolerance limits part of your personal code of integrity. Choose consciously, take responsibility for your actions, stand up tall. This is what real courage is about.
Now is your turn! What does your personal code of integrity look like? How do you apply it when it comes to difficult situations?