Finding the Way Out of a Coffin That’s Nailed Shut

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    Tom in The Glass Menagerie wants to know how the magician or anyone can “find a way out of a coffin that is nailed shut without removing one nail,” or you could say how to find “a way up the slippery slope.” Work and work relationships can do more harm than good. This is one such tale.

    My friend, Phil, is an intelligent, creative and passionate worker as well as an excellent communicator–only problem is: he doesn’t fit his job description. According to his supervisor, he was, to put it kindly, miss-classified when he was with higher headquarters and just doesn’t fit in in the Regional office model.

    Some might call it a personality conflict with the boss. Some might say Phil was just incompetent and did nothing but make everyone else work harder. Either way, no one was happy with the situation, and the system it seemed left everyone paralyzed to do anything about it. Except Phil who was trapped.

    Here it is: the story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. The story of a worker, moved by higher headquarters to a regional office with a different mission, left high and dry after a reorganization with a boss who didn’t think he was qualified. He was a star at headquarters, but the Regional office wanted to show how it was important, too. He went from being a star to being a nobody, a nothing, a loser. Sadly, it wasn’t his fault, but no one will ever claim otherwise.

    Unfortunately for Phil, it meant staying on in a position where his talents were unappreciated, professionally ruined and alienated in his own office and the one he left behind in central office. He was completely isolated by those he used to call friends who were not willing to support the once-king creator, now a loser. No doubt ego played a huge role, but we don’t even have to go there. The system failed him–plain and simple.

    While there may be many options in the system to deal with situations like this, most deal in a negative way for the employee, and work for the supervisor by putting an uncooperative employee “in their place” or making them quit altogether. Safe management, not leadership. The options made for Phil were the ones where he had to initiate and there was, of course, his own admission that he was unable to do the job assigned. Hence, he admits to incompetence when that is not the issue.

    There was one attempt intended to make him feel the system was trying to help him, but it left him virtually demoted under the guise of “no way to create a job at the same level,” which he accepted, and with a real loss of self-esteem, which left him depressed. With the depression was a trail of times misspent worrying about surviving the job. Lost time and lost opportunities. Fortunately, no loss of life (his own) in these desperate times, although his health was profoundly affected. The body reacts to stress.

    There seemed a willingness only to let him fall on his own sword, a willingness to use the system to pressure career decisions he didn’t want to make because he needed the job, an unwillingness to move him to another position, create a position, or just change supervisors. Falling on his sword or any of the “forced” decisions on his part would help any supervisor stay unblemished by the association, and the higher-ups not having to make a “leadership” decision that they’d have to live with that involved a breathing human being and not a spread sheet.

    There’s always more to it, but I’ll try to stay focused on how to remove oneself from such a position gracefully and win back in the end the most important loss–self esteem.

    What to do? Apply for jobs, but in this economy–not a good option. Many resumes and letters later, Phil begins to wonder if the supervisor who encouraged this move was also not supporting him when the calls for recommendations came in, or if word had already spread among Phil’s professional world that he had been black balled–all for the sake of ego.

    Sad but true, despite all the conversations that said, “Don’t worry about your job, I’ll do all I can,” until such time and every creative decision is derailed because the supervisor wants any efforts made to change the situation made by Phil himself, on behalf of himself. Phil’s reputation prior to the move had been founded on his ability to find creative solutions, but here he was stuck.

    Fortunately, possibilities for retirement were near–just not Phil’s timetable. It was still years down the road. He had made the original move for a family; his wife had been offered a great job near her not-so-well parents. The commissioner in headquarters, impressed with Phil’s abilities, made the call the Region felt obliged to honor–his request to hire Phil. But commissioners change, and some aren’t always the leaders their predecessors were. Thus, follow-on support was influenced by present conditions…and the viewpoints of others affected–except Phil’s. His story didn’t matter no matter how professional he made it, with no accusations–just a simple request the system couldn’t handle. At some point, one has to think it was the people who didn’t want to be connected to Phil in any way so not doing anything to help ensured their anonymity, although their intervention would have made more sense.

    So, Phil stayed, determined to see it through and do whatever he had to do to make it work. He played nice with all his colleagues, maintained everything he did at a professional level, and kept asking how to make things work. The work piled on as the goal it appeared was to never let Phil succeed. He had seen a memo where his supervisor had expressed her doubts that Phil would be able to succeed (in fact she was sure of it) and by not doing so would bring the unit down, the agency down, etc. And, the supervisor was determined not to be wrong in this assessment. It appears the mark of her leadership was always calling it right. It appeared she saw chances and trust laced with risk despite that it would have shown strength of character on her part. The depression and sleeping pills helped Phil gain the nominal normalcy of life. At least, he found a way not to obsess about his failure at work, to his family to himself for a time

    The way out. Retirement. No burned bridges. Relief. Phil was more busy in retired life, but he smiled every day. He was not at all proud of his last eight years on the job–a job he once thought important to others, one he once seemed dedicating his life to. It was now the one topic that made him feel dead inside–no feelings whatsoever. No, that was just what he told himself. In reality he even took a few calls and talked with clients about their problems and not his; he listened and gave advice with the caveat he was retired now with no real authority. He couldn’t help himself; he was just that kind of guy.

    No time now to be bitter–only time to live and try to do what he loved. It was a little late. Eight years spent with passion would have been better than the stress spent to survive the job. Now that passion was spent writing and doing those things he didn’t have time for. He had incorporated some while still on the job, taking time away from the family, but it save his sanity.

    Suddenly, Phil is something of a hit in retirement now being able to say what he thought. His creativity and view of the world are appreciated and even revered by some–something that began as a “mistake” was made whole again. He feels validated for the first time in years. Vindicated, maybe never. However, he blogged and he spoke on things not related to his old job. His view on the world was different, appealing in its difference to an audience who had been there, too. They connected.

    And then, it was over. The stress had taken its toll. He died. We all know many people who die six months after retirement. Could this be a reason? A possibility?

    There are so many other ways this story could have gone. There were simple solutions that would have left Phil happy or at least relieved–and productive, willing to give back tenfold what took him away from the hellish situation. The moral of the story is to see the tree, not just the forest. The worth of a man is beyond his classification. Instead of looking for weaknesses, look for strengths, train and use those strengths, and the company will gain even more.

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    The Cave Man trainer has again tried to put a new face on a training topic. This one, I admit, was a little different. It came from the heart. You can still find more of my writings on my website, and leave comments here or there. You don’t have to agree with me to find a favor. I am happy to post opposing views, and even offer guest bloggers a chance to voice their opinion in some detail. Check out my book The Cave Man Guide to Training and Development on sale now with a coupon code to make it irresistible. Thanks for listening.

    Happy training.