by Arthur Paul Patterson and Linda Tiessen-Wiebe
WE HAVE BROUGHT our children and pets to work and regularly dress down on Fridays to improve relations and productivity. Now it is time to do something really revolutionary – bring ourselves to work! It is odd to consider something taken for granted so much as lugging our personality and life into the office day by day; yet, my experience has been that most employees bring only a fragment of themselves to work. Call it the "work self" or the "company automaton"; whatever it is called, it is far from a full-blown person. We are not getting enough out of work and work is not getting enough out of us when we leave our passion for life at home, waiting for the weekends.
Linda did just that. She would go to the office believing that work was a financially necessary but fundamentally unrewarding setting, impervious to change. She did her job as a computer analyst adequately but felt the stress of deadlines, unreal expectations, and 12 years of working for someone else, had finally demoralized her. She said she was half-alive. She recorded her frustration in her journal:
In April, I was having a tough time at work. There was a project with creeping scope, and a crisis-driven manager who lacked confidence in me. I was insecure and driven. The project had a planning meeting. Even though I kept telling my manager I had too much on my plate and that our deadlines were unrealistic, she didn't listen, and the directives remained unchanged. In desperation, I called Art because I was at my wit's end. I had tried everything. I felt burned out with no resources left to meet the challenge ahead of me.
It sounded to me as if a "bring yourself to work" approach might be the right one for Linda. It took several weeks for us to spin out the metaphor.
Her first objection was that in bringing herself to the job, the job would suffer. It would become merely a context for doing whatever she wanted. Our personal hopes and the way we spend eight hours a day are supposed to be at odds with each other! You’d take the work out of work if you tried this. "Do you actually think that if you brought yourself to work all you would do is surf the Internet and phone friends on company time?" (She admitted that sometimes she would like to. I said that that was only an expression of frustration.) "Linda, you don’t do that when you bring yourself into a friendship. You don’t just exploit other people and get them to meet all your needs. I’ve seen you in action. You actually extend yourself for your friends. You try to pick up on their needs and meet them within reason. Why not try this at work?"
I continued: "At work you are on a team with a supervisor and other workers. You recognize the goals they have in your work context. You’re in it together. I know you love getting things accomplished with other people, not impossible things but possible things. How about sitting down with your super and asking what has to be done from the company point of view and then figure out what could be done if everybody on your team pulled together. Of course, if you are a team you want to make sure no one gets side-tracked through stress. So being realistic about the goal is important. How many hours of overtime will each of you offer this project? How will you hold each other accountable for your weekly goals? Is this an exceptional time from your employers’ point of view or does there always seem to be an emergency? What kind of incentives can you think of that will keep everyone going?"
Thinking clearly about the objective aspects of the work project, Linda recorded her progress so far:
The immediate problem at work was a system test that seemed on too aggressive a schedule. Art asked me to come up with a plan for achieving the test and for ideas on how I would enlist team members to help me. After we discussed and revised the plan, I was to review this with my boss, to help her understand, as well as to provide objective feedback for myself. As I worked with team members and discussed different dynamics with Art, he encouraged me to share what I was learning with some of them. We made more progress in those five weeks than we had all year. At the end I reviewed the progress with my boss. She conceded we had mad e gains even though we hadn't met the ultimate goal. I began to recognize those demands were unrealistic, but that there was still constructive things I could do. I also shared the gains as I saw them with my team, to help them recognize progress in context, instead of buying into the "it’s never good enough" theme.
While Linda managed to bring her problem-solving self to work, she discovered that it was essential to also enlist her imaginary side. She was unconsciously bringing an overly sensitive and frail self to work, leaving her stronger self-images at the door. Part of this had to do with the power structure of work. Being lower on the totem pole doesn’t lend itself to confidence. To explore the images we decided to pull out the magazines and make a collage that paralleled the way she felt in the current situation. I asked her to pick three images in particular and tell their story in relation to her present stresses.
Picture one was an anemic-looking Dickensian waif, malnourished, and needing to be rescued. Linda was saying she was symbolically impotent at work. She needed others to come and solve the problems. She did not see herself empowering others but as the recipient of others’ power. We discussed the implications of this for the current project. We concluded that she expected others to solve the expectations gap and that when they did she could be herself again.
Picture two was a frenzied juggler with too many balls in the air; of course, the foreground was getting cluttered with the ones she had dropped. Linda felt that the balls were being pitched at her from a variety of sources, each one warned her not to drop their ball. The juggler, she said, had forgotten the basics of how to slow down and keep the balls in the air one at a time and then add others as the stability grew. She felt like a fool because she couldn’t even juggle the easiest tasks –her equilibrium was destroyed. Her third image was a corrugated rusty tin shack. She laughed when she told me that this is my new home when I lose my job. She had become the waif, the vagabond she thought she was to begin with. Nobody saved me and I didn’t learn to juggle the balls. Now I live in a shack.
These images showed that Linda’s creativity was being used against herself. I told her, you have created an interesting tragedy. Now let's try to turn this tragedy into a comedy, not of errors but of successes. Comedy usually means something funny and usually self-deprecating, but the older meaning of comedy had to do with the success of individuals in a community.
I asked Linda to pick replacement images for the waif, the juggler and the shack. From a magazine with Arthurian tales, she picked a warrior queen sitting at a luxurious banquet with a roast pig on the spit, an apple firmly in its mouth. There were dancers and lute players and very competent juggling jesters keeping the group entertained. She told me, that is the exact image I need to solve my work problems.
Linda provided leadership to her team by communicating with management about the expectations and the resources necessary. She kept all the balls in the air superbly. They decided, in the end, that the project was far too ambitious; they downscaled the plan to something doable. And it was done. Linda the Jester helped the team by providing humourous cartoons and jokes. To top it off, a parchment paper invitation to a celebration banquet at her house in the summer was given to all team members. Beer was provided. Had I driven by that August evening, I would have expected to see her smiling with satisfaction seated like a warrior queen on her lawn chair.
By bringing her best objective and creative self to work, Linda got more out of this project than she put in. Her employer received an industrious and creative worker instead of a frightened, frenzied one.What I got out of the process was the satisfaction of helping Linda bring herself to work and the knowledge that work can be a place to be our best selves.
Image used with permission from Jeff Vernaus.