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

Tom in The Glass Menagerie wants to know how the magician or anyone can “find a way out of 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.

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, but 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.

How is this about training? It’s more about a system so locked in and inflexible supervisors or the human failings we all have of wanting to protect our own careers.

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 now were not willing to support the once-king creator, now 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, and an unwillingness to move him to another position, create a position or just change supervisors. Any of these situations would help a supervisor stay unblemished by the association, the higher-ups not have to make a 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 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 a Phil’s timetable. It was still years down the road. He had made the original move for 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 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 everyday. 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.

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 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.

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Dannielle Blumenthal

This is a really sad story. It is so unjust that an employee who has everything to offer the system, finds that the system ends his career and probably his life too. It’s one of those posts where you can’t say anything other than, so sorry. All we can do is try to contribute each in our own way to prevent future tragedies like this. (It is a tragedy.) Thanks for posting it.

Jack Shaw

What’s sad is that it’s true, and we allow it to keep on happening worrying about what happens only in our careers and watching. The idealistic young care about people but can’t do anything about it; the realistic bask in their success and ignore what devastation they left behind.

Marsha Toler

It is really a shame that your friend, Phil, was thrust into such a situation as I imagine many people now find themselves in due to reorganization in their agency. People who have self esteem issues anyway may find themselves feeling paranoid as if everything thing they do is wrong when it could be that actually they and their work habits are being nitpicked by supervisors who are just as intimidated by the possibility of losing their own job. It is a known fact also, that it is harder to get a job the older one is and anyone who thinks differently must not be in their 40s or 50s. It is good your friend had the option to take retirement; many younger people in their 30s or 40s, or even early 50s, who find themselves in the same situation do not always have that option. Please accept my deepest sympathy on the loss of your friend, Phil. He was fortunate to have a friend like you to care about him and allow others to know his plight. I extend my deepest sympathy post-mortem to your friend, Phil, on the loss of his dignity and self esteem due to the a sad situation at his place of employment.

Jack Shaw

As you all may have noticed this last blog was different from all of my others–probably because it sounded the most personal–and that it was, personal because people enter into the situation from all levels and are obliged by common courtesy to help. Unfortunately, this is not just a work situation, but a life situation. I’m going to try and address the issues in my next blog. As for the younger folks affected here, the choice of quitting and finding another job is a little better because of the age difference (laws forbidding that discrimination aside, it happens) unless the current supervisor is dead set on ruining a future Federal career of any kind–hopefully not the case. Thanks for all the condolences for Phil. Let’s talk prevention next.