Dilbert, my silly slammer stress buster toy, sits on my desk, vying for my attention as soon as I walk into my office. I enjoy his “rant” each time I slam him, although he only has three sayings: “Get out of my cubicle!”, “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”, and “You want it when?”
Dilbert came into my life long after I left my last full-time job working for one of “those” bosses we’ve all experienced in our lives, but his cubicle admonition echoes my own then-daily internal rants at the woman I named “Attila the Hun.” As soon as I started working for Phyllis, I knew that I had made a mistake. Her overbearing presence was foreboding and intimidating, her steely glare and tight-lipped smirk (replete with hot pink lipstick) rendered her a force to be reckoned with.
It was common to arrive at the office at 8:00 am to find her working away since dawn. I could smell the burnt coffee in the urn, so I knew that she had been there for many hours. Her disapproval of “late comers” was delivered silently and effectively. Computers were a new phenomenon in the workplace back then, and I felt very uncomfortable knowing that like many baby boomers of my era, I was going to have to learn how to use one.
I knew I had a steep learning curve ahead of me. Even simple tasks felt overwhelming, and although Phyllis seemed willing to teach me the essentials, I intuitively knew that no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t going to grasp this skill in a hurry.
Moment of truth
Two weeks into my new job, Phyllis scheduled a two-hour intensive session to help me learn the software. Patience was not her virtue. I was struggling to understand the program and she was becoming increasingly frustrated. After an agonizing hour of coaching, she lost it. I asked one too many questions and she began to scream, “When are you going to get this? How long am I going to have to sit here holding your hand?”
I began shaking and felt the tears welling up in my eyes. As Phyllis continued her tirade, I found the courage to stand up and walk away. Unbelievably, she followed me out of my office and into the ladies restroom. I had shut myself in a stall and was sobbing uncontrollably.
Frozen with fear, I could not budge. As I cowered in my stall, I wondered if Phyllis was going to break down the door. I pictured her face. No doubt it had turned a deep shade of purple, a perfect complement to her pink lips and the fuchsia outfit that was her “signature” colour and preferred shade of attire. She eventually gave up, and I heard the door to the outside of the restroom slam as she stormed out.
Phyllis didn’t speak to me for the remainder of the week. The last time anyone had given me the silent treatment was at the age of ten. Needless to say, working in this environment became unbearable. The dysfunction soared to a new level, and it became clear to me that I could no longer stay in my job.
Adversity provides opportunity
Until the bathroom incident, I had no idea how I was going to extricate myself from the situation. When Phyllis shrieked, “Get out of that cubicle now!”, little did I realize that her words would soon prompt me to assess my work situation in a new light. It was the wake-up call I needed, my moment of truth, and I was ready to move on and find a job where I felt psychologically safe to express my opinions, to stand up for myself, and to be treated with respect and dignity. It was time to apply the power of positive communication and self-belief
It took several months to find a new job and physically move on, but I never looked back. Self-doubt was replaced by self-awareness and a sense that I truly deserved to fully enjoy my work environment. And that “new job” became my new career. Suddenly, I had the courage to live my dream and start a business of my own.
Have you ever found yourself in a similar predicament? How many times have you wanted to tell a manager or an annoying colleague to “get out of my cubicle”? Have you ever had a feeling almost immediately that you made a monumental mistake when you accepted a job, feeling uncomfortable expressing your thoughts right from the start, yet you allowed yourself to remain trapped?
However, if we simply leave a job without learning from our mistakes, they will inevitably play out again somewhere else. Versions of “Attila the Hun” are everywhere. They are simply embodied in a different character.
What we fail to realize is that these types of scenarios are a tremendous gift in our professional and personal development because they serve as moments of growth. Unfortunately, we waste a lot of emotional energy complaining about a colleague or manager’s behaviour to anyone who is within earshot, rather than confronting the situation in a professional manner. The meaning of the word “confront” is to face something. By taking this approach, we are leading ourselves first by using values-based , proactive and positive communication.
An example in the “Phyllis” scenario would be: “Phyllis, it’s so important to me to place a high value on great workplace relationships. And because the work that we do is so vital, when something happens and I am not feeling comfortable, I want to be able to let you know. Because ultimately, what we want to be able to achieve is to have success for our clients and for all of us to ensure their goals are realized. I understand that I need to learn how to use the computer. There is a learning curve involved and I need time. I was uncomfortable when you raised your voice during the training session. I would prefer if I was given time to practice on my own. It’s better for me to know that I can approach you if there is something about my work that concerns you, rather than my feeling ignored.”
Access your personal power
Individuals who are taking the lead in challenging conversations are not seeking to teach people lessons. When you take charge of yourself, you are practicing positive communication, taking care of your side of the street, and yours alone. You cannot control the response of the other party. However, you can influence the situation by letting go of control and a defeatist mindset. By managing your emotional energy and equipping yourself with essential work and life communication skills, you will reap the benefits you for years to come. It starts with self-belief and a willingness to risk forward with a new approach.
About the author:
Based in Vancouver, Michelle Ray is a leadership expert, author hall of fame speaker and respected thought leader. This month’s blog contains excerpts from her book: Lead Yourself First! Indispensable Lessons in Business and in Life, available here. Her second book Leading in Real Time: How to Drive Success in a Radically Changing World was released in the fall of 2021. It can be purchased at any of these outlets.