Coach’s Challenge for October 15, 2007

Good day, team,

A quote from Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, has stayed with me over the past week. She writes, “The essence of bravery is being without self-deception.”

The quote reminded me of a situation in which I had greatly deceived myself. I was working for a high-tech company in Silicon Valley as a human resources manager. The company grew rapidly, from 60 people to 1,200 people within 24 months, and was experiencing record profits when, suddenly, the CEO made a bad decision to completely change the direction of the company. Within six months, it spiraled toward bankruptcy.

At this point, the board of directors intervened, removed the CEO, and brought in a new COO, a man who was known for reducing spending and coordinating large layoffs. He was positioned as the guy who could save us. We were told that he would help the company focus on its key products, reduce expenses and scale down appropriately.

One of the first things the COO did was meet with the human resources managers to let us know what was coming so we could orchestrate the layoffs. There were two other managers in the department who had been there longer than I had and who were more specialized in their human resources expertise. I was the generalist who had helped recruit and hire many of the employees.The new COO told us that he wouldn’t need three human resources managers for a company of about 100 people, so only one of us would survive the layoffs. To make matters worse, I learned from the COO’s admininstrative assistant that the new company, that was being described as smaller and more focused on key lines of business, was actually being prepared for sale and a few people (including the new COO) would pocket a lot of money when the deal went through.

The competition that ensued between my team members and me was ugly; we all fought to save whatever territory we thought we owned and did our best to ingratiate ourselves with the new COO.

At the same time, I felt very badly about what was happening to the company and the people I had helped hire. Many employees had families who depended on them. Yet here we were, sitting in meetings looking at lists of names and treating the people as if they had no history, no families, no value, even though I knew what they had sacrificed to make the company successful.

I also knew how much they believed in what the company had been doing before it changed direction. People had felt great pride in their work and the company’s initial vision and mission. They knew they belonged to a company that valued them, and they worked hard so everyone could profit.

Now, all of this enthusiasm and team spirit was gone. The atmosphere went from open and creative to secretive and unproductive. When a manager walked into the lunchroom, people became quiet. When the human resources team met with anyone, people would walk by the conference room and avert their eyes: They didn’t want to see what was going on. The negativity that permeated the building was intense. Paranoia began to increase, and even those who thought they were in the know, part of the inner, executive circle, began to question each others’ motives.

What I witnessed in myself was something I have always regretted. In the midst of the competition to keep my job, I did whatever was necessary to win the approval of the COO and the managers who bonded with him to keep their jobs. I watched myself do things that I didn’t believe in. I repeated the party line, even when I knew what I was saying wasn’t always true. I convinced others that the company’s new direction would be better for them and that, even though we had to let some people go, the new company would be better for it. I remember saying, “Don’t worry about them. They’ll easily find other jobs. It’s a good economy, and they have plenty of experience.” But, in my heart, I knew that finding new jobs would not be easy and that ultimately the company was being put up for sale and in the end, everyone would lose their jobs and benefits.

Ultimately, I understood that no matter how much I deceived others, the greatest damage I did was to myself. My level of self-deception was deep. I kept excusing my actions and telling myself that sustaining my lifestyle, my family and my position was more important than the inner voice that reminded me of the truth. I didn’t have the courage to be honest with myself and act upon my convictions.

I look back at that time and see someone who was afraid of losing her job, her income and her life. I also see that I was losing my integrity.

In the end, I was chosen as the only remaining human resources manager. I remember what one of my fellow managers said as she left: “Well, congratulations. Now you just have to live with yourself.” At the time I thought, “Sour grapes,” but in my heart, I felt the truth of her assessment.

The company was eventually sold. The people who did it for the money pocketed much less than they thought would get. They blamed the employees, the board of directors, the company’s advisor’s, etc., and went away thinking that, for all the effort they had put into it, it wasn’t worth it. What they never saw was that whatever amount they got in the end could never satisfy their greed. And I don’t think it ever crossed their minds how much damage they did to the spirit of the company, its people and its customers.

Your challenge this week is to express yourself with forceful grace in situations where you have been deceiving yourself or hiding from yourself and others, even if it just means having the courage to tell yourself the truth. It may be a situation at work where you are afraid to express yourself, but know that avoiding the truth or hiding from it is no longer acceptable to you. Perhaps there’s something happening at home that you know needs attention, but you’re avoiding it and telling yourself that it will just go away or change on its own, even though you know it needs addressing. Whatever the situation, be gentle with yourself and courageous at the same time.

There’s a wonderful metaphor here about the lion and the lamb, but that’s another story.

Have a great week!

Kathleen

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