Monday, 16 May 2011

I’m glad it’s all over, as Captain Sensible once said

The last six months at work have been terrible, the darkest days of my career. Why? I don’t want to say I was bullied, but I was abused at work. An abuse of power.

A colleague was promoted to be my manager, and that’s when the difficulties started. Cue months of anger, frustration, stress, headaches… I went to HR and got some good advice. I went to the doctor to put it on record. I got put on a plan, not quite a disciplinary but a coaching plan. Approaching 40 and being put on a coaching plan? I felt it was undeserved. But then so was the appraisal that, had it gone through, I would have been on a disciplinary! I’ve been doing this job for 11 years, so what’s changed? The management…

My plan would last 60 days, with weekly meetings, and consisted of
  1. not embracing the company
  2. not communicating effectively (with no evidence provided at all)
  3. not finding quick positive solutions to problems

This is what I was always told:
  • Don’t stir things up, you don’t know what they will do
  • They are a ruthless company, if you do anything they don't like, you'll be out
  • They had your cards marked a long time ago

These are the things I was told. These are the things I believed. I let him abuse his power over me. I believed that because I hadn’t always been meek and mild, that my inquisitive nature had been misconstrued as difficult and a pain in the arse.  And I thought I had nowhere to go.

When I was told about the plan, I spent a week worrying about it before it was explained more to me the week after. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate and had hideous headaches. That week I will never get back – my son’s 5th birthday weekend.

A close friend at work almost ordered me to go to see a counsellor. Having been through a similar experience the year before, ending up physically unable to walk, she knew what might happen if I let this go further.

I saw the same lovely lady for about 6-7 weeks. At first I thought “This seems nice, talking about myself for an hour, how decadent.” I hadn’t seen how it would work … yet.

I was keeping my head down trying to do as I was “told” to at work not “blocking” instructions. This is whilst being constantly asked if I had done something. This something would be a task I normally do. I do well. I have been doing for 11 years. I was asked to do it, it is part of my job, I don’t need to be asked all the time. Note that I have never been criticised for my work, just my personality.

Whilst keeping my head down, things were alright. The first time he’d upset me about the plan, it had taken a week for me to calm down. The second time, he’d returned from a two week break only to inform me that we needed to restart the plan. I had asked him this before he went, but he assured me it was alright. But no, we needed to restart when I thought we were nearly halfway through. This time my upset lasted two days. On the third day I was driving into work when suddenly I realised that it was OK and I could deal with it.
I told a friend. She said that the counselling had obviously been working. It wasn’t obvious to me, but seeing as it took me nearly a third of the time to get over it, I realised it must have been. And my very wise friend (my previous manager no less!) explained that what I’d been learning in my counselling was going on in the background. I had thought I’d have to go through a mental checklist, ie (1) Deal with the problem – check. Etc. But no, I saw a result and was very proud of myself.

My counsellor talked about the psychological messages passed down to me from my parents and grandparents. Being clever and independent featured quite heavily. This explained why I was gaining so much of my identity from my work. That’s all very well if it doesn’t cause you pain, but it was with me. I wanted other things to show who I am. Being a mother, a wannabe-teacher. She taught me to live in the “neutral area”, not high or low, but in the middle. This led me to investigate the Middle Way that Buddhists try to achieve, things I had talked about with my acupuncturist.

With the acupuncture and the counselling and the support from my family and friends both at work and at home, I was slowly able to come to terms with the fact that my manager abused his power. That I wasn’t going to take any of his lies about how he didn’t want to put me on the plan, it was someone else’s fault. Indeed when he tried to tell me that for the second time, I held up my hand and said Let’s not go there again, you’ve already said that, I think the meeting is over. I was proud of myself then!

Luckily for me, there was huge light at the end of the tunnel. He was leaving. He has now in fact left. The last month or so, we both changed. He relaxed a bit, and I did too, finding new ways of coping.  I was able to look him in the eye and feel relaxed with him. That made daily life easier.

Now he has left, there is a lighter feeling in the office. And in my mind.

I continued my weekly plan meetings with my manager’s manager last week and spilled the beans on how I felt. She’d asked quite a few times before how I was getting on with the plan and I’d always answered Yes fine thanks. But now I told the truth.

And the truth came out. I accepted responsibility for being unprofessional (sniping) at him in a phone call last year, which HR heard and saw the other side to what had previously been them seeing my side. I wished I’d been told of this at the time so I could have explained why, as there were mitigating circumstances, and been given the opportunity to apologise.

I did however get acknowledgement of his bad temper and unprofessional attitude. It had come to their attention that he hadn’t treated me or others in the office as he should have done, and that he hadn’t spoken to me and others as he should have done. It wasn’t just me and she admitted that the communication issues were just between myself and him. Check. She also understood that my not embracing the company could, in fact, be felt by all the occupants of our outpost. Having been taken over a few years ago, we remained half-unintegrated, with rumours abound that we were going to be shut down. Check.

The negativity which was probably there has now dissipated as she is pleased that I have taken on board new processes and structures. A good mark for me. Check.

And the most important thing was the comment “You know these plans are confidential, you don’t know who else was on one.” Meaning – he was too.

I did get a bit shaky and upset speaking about this, but I am so glad I did. I feel I did deal with the issues, I knew it wasn’t me but as there had been no recognition from management above to this effect, I just had to live with the knowledge that I knew I was right.

But now that I have had this chat, I know that unofficial as it was, there was some external recognition that I wasn’t where the problem lie. I might have been part of it, but not all of it by any means. And I have learned so much from the plan – I have shown myself in a good light unknowingly by getting involved with new structures and processes, and being seen to just “get on with it”.

I now have the confidence (again) to stand up for myself, to be myself, to be allowed to shine, to be the old me, the real me.

And for that, I can say a big Thank you!