How Do I Take a Stand Without Making Things Worse?

Work on self first, the relationship second

The first rule of interpersonal problem-solving is self-inquiry. Self-inquiry means taking a step back to objectively assess our attitudes and actions. We work on ourselves first, not to conjure up inordinate shame about our inadequacies, but to take appropriate responsibility, to first forgive ourselves, to make course corrections, and repair the damage to the relationship. The best that we can do is good enough. Grace fills in the deficits. When others see that we are willing to look inward first, the adversarial dynamic automatically changes. Specifically, ask:

  • In what way am helping to create the problems?
  • Am I saying it is somebody else’s fault?
  • What changes could I make to help in this difficult situation?
  • Am I demanding that everyone else make changes instead?
  • Am I saying, “They just don’t understand or they would agree with me?”
  • How often do I say, “I need to be more patient, kind, caring.” How often do I say, “Just deal with it—if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen?”
  • How are my emotions and attitudes affecting those around me? Do I often deliberately alter my mood because someone else needs me to?

No matter how much we like to dance, the only feet we have control over are our own. Until we can at least get this one thing deep inside ourselves, the blame game will continue to be a national pastime.When we blame others, they blame us back; both sides use blame as a justification for continued mistreatment, which tends to escalate over time. In the meantime soft hearts become hardened and hardly capable of deep feeling. Sound attractive?
The antidote is personal accountability and reconciliation. So, get the biggest magnifying glass of courage you can muster and let’s go to work cleansing the lens of our perception. Develop the habit of asking, “How am I creating what I don’t want?” This leverages us to increased effectiveness. And lighten up a little when you ask this question. Savvy workers recognize their own fallibility, their own humanness. In the same way the blame game is self-reinforcing, gracefully working on ourselves builds confidence and trust. Accepting responsibility is liberating, maybe not initially, but the fruit of the effort is sweet.

Speak the truth tempered with mercy

In Death of Outrage, William Bennett reminds us of our moral responsibility to speak out against things we think are wrong. He says, “In a self-governing and law-abiding nation, we must never allow ourselves to be lulled into passive disgust or indifference, the civic equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders. We must never lose our sense, when appropriate, of outrage.” “When appropriate” are the operative words to which I might add “respectful” outrage (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). Truth is always appropriate; it is best within the parameters of compassion.

Personally and organizationally we are dead without the truth clothed in kindness. It is not helpful to anyone to “turn the other cheek” until we have turned our heads backward! By protecting, denying, ignoring, withholding, lying, hiding, and being politically correct, we become partners in the adversity, perpetuating situations which need to stop—not just for our own sake or for the good of the company, but also for the welfare of the one who is involved in the misdeed. It’s interpersonal suicide to lie and withhold information. Likewise being “brutally” honest and personally “ruthless” create defensiveness and destroy trust. The use of sarcasm, complaint, anger, and self-righteous indignation make bad situations worse. As Maya Angelou puts it, “Whining is not only graceless, but can be dangerous. It can alert a brute that a victim is in the neighborhood.”

Differ with Discernment.

Taking a stand should be done with deliberation and reasonable insight and understanding about the goals, costs, and benefits. It is enormously challenging to maintain the delicate balance of merging personal opinions and identity with those of the organization. If we spoke out on everything we felt, issues both great and small, we would be viewed as such a threat to the organization we would never be trusted with important assignments. The boundaries of dissonance and dissent vary widely in organizations collectively and individually. Our tolerance for differences and disagreement are as personal and individual as are our abilities to respond with wise judgment and interpersonal skill. By thinking about and coming to terms with our own tolerance quotient help to anticipate and prevent problems.

The movement toward openness and communicating feelings is also not without pitfalls. For example, in the same way withholding information is detrimental, so is indiscriminate openness and trust.

Myth: By sharing my true feelings with someone,
he or she will respond to my needs.

Maybe, maybe not. The proliferation of self-help material and pop psychology has made many workers sitting ducks in the pitiful pool of “I messages!” The assumptions underlying the value of telling others how you feel is that they want to know what you feel, that they will care how you feel if they know, and they will change what they are doing if it is hurtful to you. Relying upon psychological or rational solutions in abusive situations at work (or elsewhere) in fact often enables manipulative and insincere co-workers to not only continue but to intensify their destructive behavior. The very nature of a psychological remedy presumes open, honest communication and a dedication to truth, which almost always is lacking when abuse is present. Speaking up for what we believe in, reclaiming our dignity and self-respect, defining for ourselves and others the parameters within which we wish to be treated and how we will treat others may work out well, but it might not. Defining the bottom line (or drawing an imaginary line in the sand) creates a controlled crisis from which positive change may occur. It may also make things worse in the short run. Havel reminds us there are no guarantees:

When a person tries to act in accordance with his conscience, when he tries to speak the truth, when he tries to behave like a citizen, even in conditions where citizenship is degraded, it won’t necessarily lead any where, but it might. [Emphasis added.]There’s one thing, however, that will never lead anywhere, and that is speculating that such behavior will lead somewhere.

It’s a pig in a poke. You could wind up a hero or be perceived as a troublemaker. The threat to our livelihood—of making things worse—is one of the biggest things that holds us back. If you fail to speak up and it’s discovered later you should have, you only delay the inevitable, usually at a higher price. Yet, if the basic aim of being a “dissident” is to serve the truth and the real purposes of life, the reward is in the “dissent” itself. The gratification of living an independent life of integrity makes up for a world of what on the surface may appear to be losses. Living true to your own values and beliefs is its own reward. Sometimes, there is virtue in losing. Nevertheless, savvy workers make a concerted effort to develop the skills needed to feel secure in this arena.

Define and Manage Boundary Violations

Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Establishing boundaries act as guideposts along the hero’s path. Boundaries define the limits of our emotional, physical, spiritual, or sexual relationships with each other—they tell us that certain behavior is unsuitable in the context of certain relationships. A boundary violation occurs when someone knowingly or unknowingly crosses the line of what we feel is acceptable. It may be both deliberate or accidental. It can be innocently committed out of kindness or maliciously committed out of animosity.

More often than not, personal boundaries have been violated when there’s adversity at work. Managing our boundaries at work is difficult because these “unwritten rules” vary from person to person, situation to situation, and culture to culture, thus making us feel like we’re shooting at a moving target! Our ability to set and respect appropriate boundaries begins in infancy. In a healthy family we learn to respect the rights and feelings of others, what is appropriate in our interactions with each other. As we know, in an unhealthy family the reverse is also true. People learn these subtle clues about boundary management mostly by observing others’ actions, both good and bad, in the give and take, the ebb and flow of human interactions.
The goal is to form boundaries that are appropriate to the situation—some that have flexibility, some that are rigid. Boundaries should be distinct enough to preserve our individuality yet open enough to admit new ideas and perspectives. They should be firm enough to keep our values clear, but open enough to allow for differences with others. They should be closed enough to withstand invasion from the crude, the rude, and unrighteous domination.

Many people at work know very little about “fence building and maintenance,” especially if their family of origin was dysfunctional in some way. And whose wasn’t? I’ve made my share of mistakes in taking a stand and setting boundaries.

In one situation, my manager had the habit of ridiculing me and his other subordinates in the weekly staff meeting. He was a large man, about 6 feet 4 inches tall and was intimidating by his very presence (especially since I am barely five feet tall and weigh a little over a hundred pounds). The company was experiencing a major downturn in sales, and the president and CEO of the company never missed an opportunity to tell all of us what losers we were. My boss accelerated his tendency to do the same.

It was an unusually stressful time for me. I worked 12 to 14-hour days, commuted more than an hour and a half each way, and struggled with the challenge of blending two families in a second marriage. On several occasions I used my best communication skills to no avail to try to reason with my boss. Quite foolishly one day, following one of his tirades, I jumped to my feet and saluted him saying, “Yes suh, Massuh, anything you say, Massuh!” I rejoiced in my courageous attempt to reclaim my self-respect. But, a short time later, my “heroic” stand invoked the Law of the Hog when management “right-sized” the company by laying off more than 300 people. The Hog ate me and dozens of other good people who had made politically incorrect choices, including the only employee so technically indispensable that the company carried a life insurance policy on him! People rarely get fired for such impulsiveness as mine, especially if they’re good workers. However, a reduction in workforce provides a politically correct opportunity to get revenge.

To set a more effective boundary with my boss, I should have chosen a time out of the heat of the moment to say something like “I can see from your response to me yesterday, that you are very upset with my performance. I didn’t intend to disappoint you, and I’m very sorry. I am committed to giving you and (name of company) my very best. I am trying very hard to meet your expectations. But, when you raise your voice and put me down, I find it very difficult to stay motivated or focused on my work and also to respect you. Please speak to me in a calm tone and in a respectful way to help me understand what you want. ”

Another mistake we often make in organizations is inappropriately taking a stand on behalf of someone else. Instead of helping the mistreated person improve the situation for him or herself, the “rescuer” often becomes the victim. People who feel victimized often engage others to “do their anger” for them by appealing to co-workers’ sense of fair play. A compassionate intent to help rectify injustice can easily turn into a death sentence for unsuspecting good people at work.

Laura’s Story

Laura worked with Alan, a vice president in a small entrepreneurial firm that produced commercials for radio and television. He was quite successful in his field, but was frequently embroiled in controversy. He often felt slighted or mistreated by his co-workers and management and confided in Laura, a new employee in the company. He also shared with her stories about the difficulties which he had encountered being raised in an alcoholic home. Feeling compassion for him, Laura sided with Alan in the controversy and when the opportunity presented itself, she also voiced her disapproval to her boss about the way Alan was being mistreated.

She soon began expecting the same mistreatment to happen to her, and she now included herself in the indictments against the company when she shared her disappointments with her boss. As a new employee in the company, taking sides and complaining influenced people to question her intent and she was quickly labeled “hard to get along with.” Her co-workers became suspicious of her intentions and soon complained about her to her boss.

Realizing the detrimental effects these conversations were having on her own attitude and morale, Laura approached Alan to discuss the problem. She said, “Alan, I know that you’re having a hard time right now, and I truly wish I could help you. But, I’m finding that by ‘confessing the sins of others’ here, I’m undermining my own career. I think it’s best not to discuss this with you anymore, not because I don’t care about you, but to prevent myself from feeling so negative about my job.”

Alan felt hurt and betrayed. He withdrew from Laura and added her name to the list of those he didn’t care for in the company. Laura had victimized herself to the point her career went nowhere and eventually had to look for another job.

The best way to help someone who is being mistreated is to listen with empathy, to help them sort out their options, without taking sides in a dispute. Taking sides often leads to gossip and duplicity, thus damaging the relationship with the offender and other co-workers. Once one is embroiled in the controversy, it can be extremely difficult to withdraw without being charged with betrayal by one or both parties. The task is to help ourselves and others to become their own heroes, not become a hero for them.

Think about the problems you are facing currently at work. What kinds of boundaries are being violated? Describe specifically whether the boundary violations are too intrusive—taking too much liberty, or too distant—not close enough. Pay attention to the feelings which come up as you consider these violations. An awareness of these feelings connects us to the meaning necessary to take a stand to restore appropriate decorum and obligation. You can trust your feelings to tell you that action needs to be taken though not necessarily what that action is. It is very easy to get sidetracked and deceived by applying motive to what we think are another’s intentions and to respond to our perceptions of the violation. Remember to pay attention to and set aside “accusing emotions.” Make a reasonable effort to understand why something is or is not happening. But, when adversity steps over the line to abuse, take action.

Perhaps some of you are in serious personal distress, needing some kind of immediate remedy and relief. It is my hope that after completing the book you will be more prepared to take appropriate action. However, for those who find themselves in need of immediate assistance, please consider the follow actions:

  1. Document everything. If you aren’t already doing so, begin now. Keep a journal of daily events, copies of performance reviews, commendations or reprimands, salary history, violations of public policy, breaches of implied contracts, breaches of good faith and fair dealing practices, illegal discrimination, etc. Establish a paper trail and preserve supporting documents of these events and witnesses if possible.
  2. Learn about your rights. Many companies have policies to protect employees from abusive work practices. Learn what they are. If what you’re dealing with is egregious enough to violate the law and can find no relief from management, contact the labor relations board in your area to discuss state and or federal protection. Find out if there is an appeals process in your company.
  3. Consider the consequences. What do you think will happen if you go public with what is happening? Decide if the negative consequences outweigh present circumstances. Have discussions with family, friends, and others with similar experiences. Legal counsel may also be useful.
  4. Explore other job options. Knowing you do not have to stay in the present job helps take off some of the pressure and strengthens your position to negotiate a more suitable situation. If you find you must leave, getting another job is much easier if you already have one.
  5. Tell someone; bring it out into the open. If the offensive situation continues and a decision is made to confront the behavior directly, you should tell the offender what your observations are in a direct, specific, and nonpunishing way. For example, say, “I’ve noticed you stand very close to me, call me “sweetie,” and complain about your wife. It feels as if you are coming on to me. Is this what you intend?” Tell the offender you find the behavior inappropriate and would like it to stop. Tell him or her that you don’t want to report it to management but are prepared to do so if necessary. If the behavior persists, shift the responsibility to management. Make the complaint in writing to the company’s highest ranking executive, with a copy to your immediate supervisor.
  6. Ask for mediation. Convey your goals to resolve the situation without escalating the conflict and commit to working with a neutral third party. Mediation demonstrates good faith toward an equitable and fair resolution to the problem and helps alleviate defensiveness. If you decide that litigation is the only remedy satisfactory to you, be realistic about what the costs are to you and your family. Get expert legal advice, someone who has a winning track record who can accurately assess your particular situation and advise you honestly. If it’s worth spending several years in litigation, make sure you have a winnable case. The majority of lawsuits do not meet the burden of proof required under current statutes. Also, rulings are very inconsistent from case to case.
  7. Use your support system. Elected officials, professional organizations, church groups, family, and others can provide support and encouragement that help alleviate stress during what is often a long drawn-out process. Resist the temptation to talk about it at work. Remember, there are no secrets in organizations and people are going to talk about it no matter what you do or don’t do. It is much safer to keep quiet and work within the system to resolve the conflict.
  8. Don’t be afraid to retreat. Going public with a complaint is often debilitating. Only you know when enough is enough. Knowing when to walk away can prevent considerable heartache.
  9. Grieve your losses. It takes time to heal. Survivors of workplace abuse typically recover through five stages of grief—denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For people who have histories of abuse elsewhere in their lives, abuse at work is usually more difficult to handle and may require professional help..

You cannot control people through intimidation and fear. The power of the payback creates only the illusion of control not real control. During hard times when we are stretched to the max, it is crucial to maintain civility and respect. We do not help our cause by beating people up or exposing their weaknesses publicly. How may we know that our dissent will make any difference? How may we know the risk is worth it? Many things are so complex, it seems hopeless to do anything about our problems. Anything we could do would be a “drop in the ocean.”

Our doubt has been answered best by Mother Theresa who said: “But without that drop, the ocean would not be full.” The accumulation of little things brings subtle pressure on the powerful. These “little ‘drops in the ocean” are the power of the powerless.

The pathway of the impossible task of improving ourselves in a world of enmity is lit by the heroic Danes and other heroes who have traveled before us. Despite the power from “above” of a totalitarian communist regime, poet and playwright Václav Havel, with the help of the “little people” from “below” peacefully created Charter 77, a covenantal call for civil and human rights in Czechoslovakia. His and others’ prophetic words inspired not only the opposition movement but also Solidarity activists in Poland and dissidents in other neighboring countries. He was named Czechoslovakia’s president just four months later. The “drops in the ocean” of Abraham Lincoln, who risked everything by speaking out against slavery, sent out ripples that, after numerous defeats, became currents strong enough to reunite a nation; of Martin Luther, whose simple act of nailing his dissent to the church door led to a restoration of religious freedom; of Gandhi, whose passive resistance saved a nation from bondage; of Martin Luther King, whose word pictures of his dream of racial equality and justice for all people rallied a nation.

And Linda, who stood up for the Boy Scout program:

Linda’s Story

When I worked for the Boy Scout office, I had a very difficult time with the way the Eagle Scout program was being run. After sharing my concerns with the leadership, they said, “We don’t want you working with the Eagle Scout program any more,” and assigned me elsewhere. I knew they were violating the way they were supposed to run the program and the whole thing hurt me. I thought about it for a couple of days and said to myself, “I don’t have to work here and accept this thing I feel is wrong,” and resigned the next day.

I looked for a job for weeks. You know it isn’t easy finding a job when you’re middle-aged. Then something spoke to me inside, saying, “This will all work to your benefit.” The same day I received a call from my bishop [church leader] asking me to come in to talk to him about my employment. While I was sitting in his office, the phone rang, informing us of a new job opening at one of the church offices. I got the job, and I couldn’t ask for a better place to work. More often than not, the lonely life on the lily pad is replaced by a place to call home.

If we are to have a resurrection of hope and redemption for the men and women of the workplace, we will come to understand that without each person’s drop, the ocean will not be full. In Havel’s words, “It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” He adds,

Hope, this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. [Italics added.]

See good, do good, be good, regardless.

Make consistent, unapologetic principled choices

Emerson said, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself; nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” Some people have that incredible ability to continue to rise above the fray, who continue to do well in spite of the competition and chaos of organizational life. They are their own heroes—they create their own meaning through strong commitment to moral and ethical principles that provide strong motivation to endure well no matter what happens externally. And they have the skills to match their principles. Even when their job security is threatened, when they face adversity and uncertainty at every corner, their responses are altruistic and unselfish. They are committed to a larger purpose, to respond well to what life demands of us instead of what life owes us:

Mark’s Story

Mark’s career was very important to him. He worked very hard and was careful to keep himself out of political battles that would damage his career in any way. He was successful in avoiding political quagmires and wanted to keep it that way. His political neutrality and successful work resulted in considerable credibility and influence in his organization. His boss treated him well and gave him large year-end bonuses which he anticipated.

Mark believed strongly in being loyal to one’s boss. He had a practice of disagreeing with his boss only behind closed doors and supported her in the company of others. He could be quite vocal about his perspectives, but once she made the decision, he felt it was his job to implement it. Unfortunately, his belief in loyalty was challenged by an even stronger value, that of honesty.

While working with his boss on a project he experienced, unexpectedly, a behavior that disturbed him. What she said behind closed doors was noticeably different from what she said publicly. For instance, with up-coming changes she announced to a group of employees that there would be no chance that employees would lose their jobs. However, in a previous meeting she spoke of planning for a layoff. For Mark, representing his boss became difficult. Although he wasn’t lying, he knew that it was a lie and felt when people saw him with her, they would view him as part of the lie. Mark concluded that he had to say something.

Mark entered his manager’s office and explained that he was uncomfortable when she said one thing and did another. Her immediate reaction was calm but afterwards he was ostracized from any future meetings and communications on the project. For him, it seemed his career was over. He struggled with keeping the value of supporting his manager and what he was currently experiencing. He decided against running to other leaders in the organization to vent and to build a coalition against her. He continued to focus on his work although the situation was very disturbing to him.

Soon the leaders noticed Mark’s absence from the meetings and asked him what was happening. It was clear that a “falling-out” had occurred. To Mark’s relief, he found that many leaders that were peers to his boss came to his support. The support was so strong that his boss offered him a significant promotion.

People like Mark have taken the time to get really clear about who they are, what is important, what brings them real satisfaction. They demonstrate hope, an orientation of the spirit, supported by faith that all things work toward good for those who go to the end of the light, “leaning not to thine own understanding.” They trust in that true source from “elsewhere” spoken of by Havel— a force that not only keeps us above water but inspires us to live creatively even under difficult circumstances.

Within this spiritual orientation, the power of the powerless is knowing that what on first glance looks like descent is actually ascent.

Yet, many workers betray themselves by buying into another myth:

Myth: If I don’t go along with those in authority,
I’ll lose my job.

Maybe, maybe not. But, if you do, better your job than your soul.

For the journey is not for us alone. When we make meaningful departures from the beaten path to the hero’s path, we find there is an “element of universality” to the experience that connects us to a larger community. If something isn’t good for others, it stands to reason it isn’t good for us either. We carry our responsibility with us everywhere and must accept it here and now in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

Deepening one’s responsibility to and for the whole community is the journey of the hero. The primary purpose is not to impact the power structure, but through independent action to indirectly impact society. By taking a stand or asking the hard questions, we tap into the “hidden sphere” of the larger community of men and women at work who feel the same as we do, who are also committed to the moral and ethical issues concerning how to get work done with our souls intact. If we do not go quietly into the night, we become the force for those who are either too afraid or too demoralized to speak what is really true.

The power of the powerless is to raise the hope
and confidence of our fellow man.

Our independent initiatives address the hidden sphere of possibilities to reveal the true nature of power; our individual actions “unmask” the deception of the powerful who seek to impose their wishes upon the weak in order to get gain. Our personal challenge is to live with an attitude of abundance and trust, letting go of the fear that pushes us to control others:

The power of the powerless is letting go of the need
to control people and outcomes.


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