It was the third session I’d had with Lee, a talented engineer working for a large multinational firm. He had been selected to participate in a development program designed to expand his self-knowledge and business skill set, while broadening his organizational exposure through strong mentoring and sponsorship.
It was viewed as an accomplishment to be selected for the program, and many previous graduates received promotions within a year of completing the experience. Lee certainly had a shot at the same opportunity, but I became concerned about his likelihood of progression after yet another conversation in which he complained about his boss.
Lee worked for James, a demanding manager who was capable of taking on multiple projects at the same time. James had an enormous capacity for balancing deadlines and deliverables without letting the pace of things overwhelm him. Because he could run fast and hard, he thought others could do the same.
But Lee was floundering under the pressure. Not only couldn’t he keep up with the work requests James seemed to thrust upon him, Lee was also reluctant to say “no” when asked to do more. Consequently, he was routinely buried under a mountain of work that interfered with his personal time off and led to long hours.
The speed of change in his organization was another challenge. It didn’t permit Lee to apply his usual methodical, process-oriented approach to getting things done. He had to be able to shift midstream from project to project to keep up with customer requirements. Consequently, Lee felt untethered from the methodologies that had allowed him to reach his current level of success. He feared that the way of operating he felt forced to adopt would lead to his failure.
Over time, these mounting pressures made Lee resentful of James. He viewed his boss as a tyrant who didn’t appreciate the burden his work demands put on Lee. Yet, when I asked if he’d shared what he was experiencing with James, Lee replied, “I haven’t exactly told him. I’ve applied for another job anyway, and I think I’m getting an offer next week.”
As I pondered how this situation had materialized and who had responsibility for changing it, Lee featured prominently in the equation. He was struggling with a few inner demons that had led him to his present circumstances, and those needed to be addressed. Secretly, Lee feared that James would think him incompetent for being unable to manage the workload. In addition, he expected James to read his mind and know instinctively what he needed and where he was in managing his projects.
Even the best bosses need feedback and to be in partnership with the person they’re trying to lead. Lee, however, came from a culture where he’d been taught to respect authority and never push back, so he put himself in a one-down position in the relationship with James.
Secondly, James was unaware of the impact of his management style and certainly wasn’t learning about it from Lee. Therefore, they had no opportunity to change their interactions with one another. With these factors at play, I failed to see how things would be different if Lee accepted another position. His lack of communication about his needs, and his resistance to taking ownership of his workload, would follow him to the next job.
The “inner defeatist”
Much of Lee’s discomfort with confronting James had to do with what Brenda Bence, author of “The Forgotten Choice: Shift Your Inner Mindset, Shape Your Outer World,” would call his “inner defeatist.” Lee lacked what Bence would call a positive “anchor belief” that supported his success and guided his inner dialogue.
When Lee considered approaching his boss about his workload, he was derailed by his anchor belief: “I’m not in control of my own destiny.” That mindset prompted Lee to believe that James and the company would ignore his needs, so he never shared them. It’s no wonder he became overwhelmed at work. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy of his own creation.
Two of the most important factors in silencing the inner defeatist, according to Bence, are wanting to do so and becoming aware of your inner conversations. “If you sense any form of fear, anger, judgment, criticism, attack, blame, jealousy, irritation, disgust, arrogance — anything that doesn’t naturally feel good – you can bet it’s the Inner Defeatist talking,” warns Bence.
Lee would have benefitted from adopting the anchor belief of “My boss wants to support my success.” It might have prevented the cascade of events that led him to search for another job and feel so miserable in the one he had.
That same anchor belief could have propelled Lee to take positive steps to resolve his workload woes by:
- Establishing priorities. While Lee could argue that all his work projects were important, some are more urgent than others. As the environment became more chaotic and unpredictable with customers, Lee needed more frequent meetings to reestablish priorities with James and keep him apprised of project progress.
- Clarifying roles. Lee often felt that he was being asked to take on assignments that were the work of other departments. It’s not unusual during times of rapid change for departmental roles to become blurred as individuals work toward a common goal or to overcome roadblocks to project success. Lee needed more frequent check-ins with James to confirm how roles and responsibilities might be shifting and identify what was in Lee’s purview and what was not.
- Identifying obstacles. Because Lee was closest to issues related to customer concerns, he was in a unique position to understand how various departments within the company were affecting customer satisfaction. Departments often had competing priorities or were unaware of the larger impact their decisions might have on meeting customer needs. Lee tried to address these issues on his own, leaving James unaware of conflicts that he could have helped resolve.
- Learning to ask for help. Identifying what’s going well and where you’re struggling is the first step to getting unstuck. Lee needed to learn that asking your boss for help isn’t a sign of incompetence; it’s using your resources wisely. Many leaders are demanding of their people, but they’re also demanding on behalf of their people. They’ll do everything possible to get their teams the support they need for success.
It’s a good time to ask, “What inner defeatist have I been listening to? What anchor belief would better serve me?”
This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, January 2022.