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,
- In what way am helping to create the problems?
- Am I saying it is somebody elses fault?
- What changes could I make to help in this difficult
- Am I demanding that everyone else make changes instead?
- Am I saying, They just dont 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 itif
you cant 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
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.
The antidote is personal accountability and reconciliation. So, get the
biggest magnifying glass of courage you can muster and lets go to
work cleansing the lens of our perception. Develop the habit of asking,
How am I creating what I dont 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 thats 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 stopnot 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. Its 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
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 wont necessarily
lead any where, but it might. [Emphasis added.]Theres one
thing, however, that will never lead anywhere, and that is speculating
that such behavior will lead somewhere.
Its a pig in a poke. You could wind up a hero or be perceived as
a troublemaker. The threat to our livelihoodof making things worseis
one of the biggest things that holds us back. If you fail to speak up
and its 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
Define and Manage Boundary Violations
Robert Frost said, Good fences make
good neighbors. Establishing boundaries act as guideposts along
the heros path. Boundaries define the limits of our emotional, physical,
spiritual, or sexual relationships with each otherthey 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 theres 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 were 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 situationsome
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
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 wasnt? Ive
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 theyre 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 didnt intend to disappoint
you, and Im 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 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 youre having
a hard time right now, and I truly wish I could help you. But, Im
finding that by confessing the sins of others here, Im
undermining my own career. I think its best not to discuss this
with you anymore, not because I dont 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 didnt 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 intrusivetaking too much liberty,
or too distantnot 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 anothers 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:
- Document everything. If
you arent 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.
- Learn about your rights. Many companies have
policies to protect employees from abusive work practices. Learn what
they are. If what youre 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, Ive
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 dont
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 companys highest ranking executive,
with a copy to your immediate supervisor.
- 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 its 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.
- 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 dont do. It
is much safer to keep quiet and work within the system to resolve the
- Dont 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
- Grieve your losses. It takes time to heal.
Survivors of workplace abuse typically recover through five stages of
griefdenial 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
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
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 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 Czechoslovakias 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:
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 dont
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 dont have to work
here and accept this thing I feel is wrong, and resigned the next
I looked for a job for weeks. You know it isnt
easy finding a job when youre 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 couldnt 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 persons drop, the ocean will not be full. In Havels
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 heroesthey 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:
Marks 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 ones
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 wasnt 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 managers 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 Marks absence from the
meetings and asked him what was happening. It was clear that a falling-out
had occurred. To Marks 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
Yet, many workers betray themselves by buying into another myth:
Myth: If I dont go along with those in authority,
Ill 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 heros
path, we find there is an element of universality to the experience
that connects us to a larger community. If something isnt
good for others, it stands to reason it isnt 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 ones 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
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.
the Free Book:
Heroworks: Becoming Your Own Hero at Work